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Motherhood - it's probably just another word for being bonkers

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  • Ian Pitchford
    The Times October 10, 2005 Motherhood — it s probably just another word for being bonkers Science Notebook by Anjana Ahuja YOU DON’T have to be mad to be
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 10, 2005
      The Times October 10, 2005

      Motherhood — it's probably just another word for being bonkers
      Science Notebook by Anjana Ahuja

      YOU DON’T have to be mad to be a parent, but it helps. In fact,
      according to a psychiatrist at Yale University, there are
      spectacular similarities between the thought processes of
      first-time parents and sufferers of obsessive compulsive
      disorder (OCD). Now he is speculating that OCD occurs when the
      brain circuits associated with parenting are triggered in the
      absence of a baby.

      Professor James Leckman started researching OCD in the 1980s.
      His plan was to hunt down the neurotransmitter that might hold
      the key to OCD, in the same way that the neurotransmitter
      serotonin plays a role in depression. He did chemical analyses
      of the cerebrospinal fluid from OCD sufferers and found . . .

      Rather than leave the samples languishing in the freezer,
      Leckman sent them off to another researcher to check for less
      well-known chemicals. “The guy who examined them was amazed by
      the levels of oxytocin,” Leckman says. Oxytocin is the hormone
      that tightens the parent-child bond. Knock out the oxytocin gene
      in female mice, and they lose the ability to nurse their young.
      Inject oxytocin into animals, and they show grooming behaviour
      and an increased faithfulness to one mate.

      “The question was,” Leckman says, “what did all the behaviours
      associated with oxytocin, such as pair-bonding, have to do with
      OCD? Then I remembered how I behaved when my wife was pregnant
      with our first child. Every time she got a fever or a cold, I
      had these intrusive thoughts about harm coming to the baby. I
      remember my wife cleaning all the time, even moving the
      refrigerator. And even though I was a really busy medic, I found
      the time to build a cradle from scratch. I just came up with the
      idea that [parenting] is a normal, adaptive version of OCD.”

      Leckman suggests that, given the high rates of infant mortality
      during human evolution, parents whose brains contained the
      neurocircuitry of paranoia would be most successful at keeping
      their offspring alive. When these circuits are switched on at
      the wrong time, he theorises, the obsessive behaviours become
      problematic and result in OCD. In particular, two variants of
      OCD — compulsive checking to ensure no harm comes to one’s
      family and an inordinate desire for cleanliness — are familiar
      to new parents.

      Most recently, Leckman has questioned expectant parents and new
      parents on their feelings about their babies, using a method
      similar to that employed to diagnose OCD. He has found that just
      before and just after the birth the feelings and fears of both
      mothers and fathers are strikingly reminiscent of those voiced
      by OCD sufferers. He is keeping the exact results under wraps,
      and is preparing a paper for publication. Interestingly, Donald
      Winnicott, the late English psychoanalyst, commented in 1956
      that, in order to relate to their infants, mothers develop a
      heightened sensitivity that is “almost an illness”.

      # BARE-FACED lying takes some nerve. And so scientists have
      proved. The brains of pathological liars are structurally
      different from the brains of honest folk, and show more wiring.
      Deceit takes more mental effort than telling the truth, suggest
      the researchers at the University of Southern California, and
      this is borne out by the observation that the liars had about a
      quarter more white matter in their prefrontal lobes than honest
      people. The increased wiring imparts the enhanced cognitive and
      linguistic skills required to pull off a convincing con.

      The liars also had less grey matter than the others — this is
      the stuff that whirrs into action when people are asked to make
      moral decisions. Professor Adrian Raine, co-author of the paper
      in British Journal of Psychiatry, summarises: “They’ve got the
      equipment to lie, and they don’t have the disinhibition that the
      rest of us have in telling the big whoppers.”

      # WANT TO lose weight? Acquiring a dog can lose you more weight
      in a year than most diet plans. Volunteers who walked dogs at
      least three times a week for a year shed 14lb. After the
      University of Missouri-Columbia study ended, several volunteers
      decided to get pets themselves or become walkers for dog
      shelters. Now Rebecca Johnson, who led the study, plans to study
      whether people would get more out of gym visits if they took
      along pets as “support companions”. Butch doing bench presses?


      Ian Pitchford PhD CBiol MIBiol
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