August 27, 2006, Updated September 12, 2012

Through its up to the minute advancements in brain research, an Israeli center is providing insight into fields as disparate as the effects of post traumatic stress disorder on mothers and young children subjected to terror, lactating mothers and hunger, and infant recognition of photos.

The multidisciplinary Gonda Brain Research Center at Bar Ilan University recently held a conference on the subjects, with some of the world’s most noted brain researchers in attendance.

“We know that there is a close connection between the mother’s stress level and the child’s,” said Prof. Ruth Feldman, who has been studying little children, ages 1 ½ to 5 in Gush Katif, the Gaza Strip, and kibbutzim in collaboration with Palestinian professor Eyad Halaq of Al-Quds University who is conducting the study in five Arab cities. “Studying very young children is a new focus in research on PTSD,” Feldman told ISRAEL21c.

Working in collaboration with Professor James F. Leckman, Head of Research at the Child Study Center of Yale University, the Israeli team has developed an assessment battery for studying PTSD in young children and some of their methods are now used internationally.

“We use genetics, neuro-biological measures, behavioral observation of mother and child in different play and interactions and, interview the child, and the mother,” said Feldman, describing the evaluation system coded for behavior and physiology.

Are there cultural differences? “Yes,” said Feldman. “It appears that the Arab population suffer more from multi-risk conditions, including domestic violence, and poverty. In general, their behavioral and relational patterns are typical of a collectivistic society whereas the Israelis behave in a style typical of an individualistic culture. The next step is an intervention program to help infants and children cope.”

In another study which Feldman is conducting, six month old babies are dressed up in electrode hats. Infants – some of whom are children of depressed mothers- are shown photographs of their mother’s face with different facial expressions; they are also shown photographs of an unfamiliar face. The researchers have found that an infant’s brain has a faster response to the mother’s angry face, and among infants of depressed mothers, the brain reaction to the mother’s angry face is especially fast and strong.

The brain’s role in regulating food intake was also on the agenda, as the attendees heard from Bar Ilan researcher Dr. Orna Zgoory.

“The regulation occurs in the hypothalamus, according to the level of specific hormones (oxytocin and leptin) found in the blood,” she told ISRAEL21c. “The brain signals how many meals a day, and the size of the meals.”

After fat and protein are digested in the gastrointestinal tract, a signal is sent back to the brain, the person stops eating and feels satiated. Offering some consolation to overeaters, Zgoory said, “Our bodies are programmed to be fat. Ten thousand years ago, we had to store food in order to get energy all year round.”

Giving advice to overeaters, Zgoory said, “Eat slowly and let the satiety signal work. It takes about 10 to 20 minutes after eating for all the signals to work and the satiety signal to kick in. You will feel the same if you eat a normal meal or if you eat a huge meal.”

Pregnant and lactating females are the exception, says Zagoory, who conducted a recent study that explains why pregnant and breast-feeding mothers have a yen for more food. Normally oxytocin and leptin potentiate the activity of CCK, a nanopeptide, which signals the brain to stop food intake. During pregnancy and nursing, sex hormones hijack the brain’s normal control system and effect a profound change. There is an actual change in the number and activity of nerves sensitized, and the signal is muted.

“We see the magic of evolution,” says Zagoory. “The female needs to feed her offspring, she needs more fats to produce milk, and therefore, she must eat more.”

What happens in the case of an obese female who is pregnant or nursing? The Gonda researchers found a unique phenomenon. Rats that lack CCK receptors are already obese. They do not eat more and therefore they do not accumulate more fat. They use the fat pads that they have, lose fat tissue, and might actually lose weight. Unfortunately, after they stop nursing, they will gain back the lost weight.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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