Babies can learn what to fear in the first days of life just by smelling the odor of their distressed mothers, new research suggests. And not just "natural" fears: If a mother experienced something before pregnancy that made her fear something specific, her baby will quickly learn to fear it too -- through the odor she gives off when she feels fear.
In the first direct observation of this kind of fear transmission, a team of University of Michigan Medical School and New York University studied mother rats who had learned to fear the smell of peppermint -- and showed how they "taught" this fear to their babies in their first days of life through their alarm odor released during distress.
In a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team reports how they pinpointed the specific area of the brain where this fear transmission takes root in the earliest days of life.
Their findings in animals may help explain a phenomenon that has puzzled mental health experts for generations: how a mother's traumatic experience can affect her children in profound ways, even when it happened long before they were born.
The researchers also hope their work will lead to better understanding of why not all children of traumatized mothers, or of mothers with major phobias, other anxiety disorders or major depression, experience the same effects.
"During the early days of an infant rat's life, they are immune to learning information about environmental dangers. But if their mother is the source of threat information, we have shown they can learn from her and produce lasting memories," says Jacek Debiec, M.D., Ph.D., the U-M psychiatrist and neuroscientist who led the research.
"Our research demonstrates that infants can learn from maternal expression of fear, very early in life," he adds. "Before they can even make their own experiences, they basically acquire their mothers' experiences. Most importantly, these maternally-transmitted memories are long-lived, whereas other types of infant learning, if not repeated, rapidly perish."