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Physical contact is important for newborns – now researchers want to find out why

DANDRITE researcher seeks to find the scientific explanation for why physical contact from birth is crucial for emotional development in the brain. And importantly, what it might mean if it is missing.

It is well known that affective touch for newborns is important, but we don't now why Photo: Christian Bowen, Unsplash

It is well known that affective touch for newborns is important, but why? What does it mean for the child's development? And how can we investigate it?

Associate Professor Asami Tanimura from Radulovic Group at DANDRITE aims to find out. She studies how we generate emotions and how to identify them in the brain. She has just received 2 million DKK from the Lundbeck Foundation Experiment Grant to investigate how physical contact contributes to the emotional development of the immature brain in newborns.

"We already know a lot about what vision and hearing mean for brain development after birth, but we know very little about how emotional development occurs, and here, affective touch and social contact play a significant role," says Asami.

More specifically, Asami will focus on the development of the limbic system. This part of the brain is involved in our emotions and contains the "reward system," which is activated when we feel emotions like happiness and pleasure. Asami explains why physical touch specifically can play a crucial role in the normal development of this system:

"Humans are social animals, and we are deeply dependent on social and physical contact. Affective touch can reduce stress and anxiety. Therefore, there is much evidence to suggest that it is precisely in this contact that we develop the part of the brain that controls our emotions."

Asami will conduct her study on mice, whereby separating the mother, and the pups, she can measure how this separation affects the development of the limbic system in the pup’s brain over a certain period.

"By using maternal deprivation as a model in mice, I will be able to investigate the relevant circuits and see if and how the neglect or emotional disturbance affects the development of the system."

Asami hypothesizes that the deprivation of tactile sensory inputs by caregivers will “damage” the early development of the circuitry system in the brain that regulates emotions, potentially leading to problematic behaviors in adulthood.

“If we can find the answer to how the emotional system develops, we may also find the answer to what happens when it fails to develop normally and thus can explain why some people develop emotional disorders like addiction, depression, or anxiety,” she explains and adds:

"This would provide us with an entirely new scientific basis for understanding the importance of skin-to-skin contact from birth.”

  • Asami Tanimura starts her project in January 2024
  • Read more about Radulovic Group
  • The Lundbeck Foundation Experiment Grant is meant to support extraordinary and bold research ideas that challenge the norms and prevailing ideas within its field of research