Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Neurobiological and Environmental Determinants of Parenting and Child Development


Lenneke Alink


In this research cluster we study attachment and emotion regulation in parents and their children, with special emphasis on neurobiological processes in parenting and development. From an interdisciplinary perspective we examine the multiple determinants of parenting and child development –‘from neurons to neighborhoods’.

We are interested in the underlying mechanisms of adults’ caregiving responses, by using for example experimental designs with cry sounds or a life-like crying baby doll. We found that a sniff of oxytocin decreased activity in brain regions related to anxiety and aversion and increased activation in regions involved in empathy. Moreover, oxytocin increased the rewarding value of infant laughter, and promoted flexible adaptation to infant crying in various contexts, lowering the perceived urgency of crying of a bored infant, while increasing empathic reactions to crying of a sick infant.  

Following this line of research, one of the current research projects examines the hormonal, neural, and behavioral dynamics of fathering through hormonal and behavioral experimental interventions. In one of our previous studies we found that fathers showed better play with their children after a sniff of oxytocin. The aim of the current project, funded by the Advanced Grant of the ERC, is to test the hypothesis that fathers’ parenting is under hormonal control and can be changed by behavioral interventions. A series of randomized controlled trials (RCT) will be done in a critical phase of parenthood: the transition to having the first baby. We test whether experiments that modulate oxytocin and vasopressin levels enhance fathers’ neural processing --assessed through functional imaging with MRI-- of infant signals and stimulate fathers’ parenting quality and involvement in parenting.

Our interest in genetics includes the interplay between nature and nurture, exploring and testing the ‘differential susceptibility’ model. That means that we use experimental paradigms and randomized intervention studies to show what works for whom, and to unravel the mechanisms of change in parenting to optimize child development. Using our Video-feedback Intervention to promote Positive Parenting and Sensitive Discipline, we found that the intervention was particularly effective for children with the DRD4-7repeat allele, both in terms of decreased externalizing behavior and in terms of lower daily cortisol levels, a stress hormone that at this age is positively related to externalizing problem behavior. Interestingly, the story for parents seems to unfold along the same lines, showing genetic differential susceptibility to environmental factors. Our results therefore suggest that the supposed vulnerability of carriers of specific genotypes is only part of the story: Such genes may also be considered as genetic markers of differential susceptibility or biological plasticity in response to environmental influences, for better and for worse.

A natural follow-up of this line of research is the study of methylation: the effects of the environment on gene expression. Methylation may serve as the interface between the environment and the individual’s genome steering development and behavior. As a consequence, child development might be conceptualized as experiences becoming sculpted in the organism’s DNA through methylation, one of the major epigenetic mechanisms of change.

Key publications

  • Naber, F.B.A., Van IJzendoorn, M.H., Deschamps, P., Van Engeland, H., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. (2010). Intranasal oxytocin increases fathers' observed responsiveness during play with their children: a double-blind within-subject experiment. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35, 1583-1586. DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.04.007
  • Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. & Van IJzendoorn, M.H., (2013). Sniffing around oxytocin: review and meta-analyses of trials in healthy and clinical groups with implications for pharmacotherapy. Translational Psychiatry, 3 e258. DOI:10.1038/tp.2013.34
  • Reijman, S., Alink, L.R.A., Compier-de Block, L.H.C.G., Werner, C.D., Maras, A., Rijnberk, C., Van IJzendoorn, M.H., & Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. (2014). Autonomic reactivity to infant crying in maltreating mothers. Child Maltreatment, 19, 101-112. DOI:10.1177/1077559514538115
  • Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. & Van IJzendoorn, M.H. (2015). The hidden efficacy of interventions: Gene x Environment experiments from a differential susceptibility perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 66, 381-409. DOI:10.1146/annurev-psych-010814-015407
  • Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J., Van IJzendoorn, M.H., Mesman, J., Alink, L.R.A., & Juffer, F. (2008). Effects of an attachment-based intervention on daily cortisol moderated by DRD4: A randomized control trial on 1-3-year-olds screened for externalizing behavior. Development & Psychopathology, 20, 805-820. DOI: 10.1017/S0954579408000382
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