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€1.5m award to see how mother’s mental health affects her child’s

Dr Rebecca Pearson

Press release issued: 6 September 2017

University of Bristol researchers have been awarded €1.5m by the European Research Council to investigate how a mother’s mental health and personality can affect her child. Despite decades of research, the causes of mental health conditions are still poorly understood due to their complexity.

This five-year study, led by Dr Rebecca Pearson from Bristol Medical School’s Centre for Academic Mental Health, will provide important new evidence about how parents and children interact with one another. Her vision is to improve children’s mental health by finding ways to break the cycle of mental-health risk across generations and by identifying the best methods of support for families.

Dr Pearson and her team will analyse existing population and intervention studies and use data from several international cohorts, including COCO90s (the next generation of Bristol’s Children of the 90s), to study the genetic and environmental factors that can affect mother and child mental health.

The researchers will look at how 300 mother-and-infant pairs interact with one another by analysing data captured by cameras worn on the head and by devices that track eye movement. The data will help the researchers establish how a mother’s parenting behaviour is affected by her personality and mental health and how this can in turn affect her child’s mental health.

 Dr Pearson said:

‘We know that if a parent has mental health problems, their child is also at greater risk but we know very little about how this risk is passed from parent to child.

This innovative research will study parenting at multiple levels to provide new insights. Understanding what puts a child at risk of developing mental health problems later in life is crucial if we want to take steps to reduce the risk and to support children effectively if they do develop mental health problems.’

The study builds on previous work by the team, which was published in Psychological Medicine, and on work conducted by Dr Pearson in 2013/14, which was funded by an Elizabeth Blackwell Early Career Fellowship.

The earlier research looked at over 8,000 parents and children in Children of the 90s and found that the children of women with personality traits associated with emotional and relationship difficulties were at greater risk of depression, anxiety and self-harm in their late teens than their peers.

Further information

This new study, entitled ‘Genetic, behavioural and cognitive mechanisms underpinning the association between mother and offspring mental health problems: mental (M) health (H) intergenerational transmission (INT) -(MHINT)’ is funded by a European Research Council grant and the proposed start date is 01/01/2018.

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