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Posted May 13 2010 1:20pm

In a new study published yesterday, scientists found that vocal contact between mothers & daughters did not differ significantly from physical contact in terms of the impact it had on comforting the children in stressful situations.

The study took place in America with sixty one female children, aged between seven & twelve, & their mothers. The researchers put the girls through a stressful situation by asking them to give an impromptu speech & do some maths tasks in front of an audience of strangers. They were then randomly assigned to three groups. One, a control group in which there was no contact with their mothers, were shown what was considered to be an emotionally neutral film. The other two groups had either total physical & verbal contact with their mothers, or verbal contact only via the phone. Both were shown the same film as the control group following this. Levels of the stress hormone – cortisol - & what is commonly referred to as ‘the love hormone’ – oxytocin – were both measured at various stages of the experiment.

In the girls who were allowed no contact with their mothers following the ordeal, cortisol levels remained high – even an hour after the ordeal had ended - & oxytocin levels low. The other two groups exhibited a very similar pattern in terms of high levels of oxytocin, & a rapid return to base levels of cortisol.

Oxytocin is known to be vital to the creation & maintenance of social bonding. This was the first time that it had been demonstrated that talking on its own could raise its levels.

“The children who got to interact with their mothers had virtually the same hormonal response, whether they interacted in person or over the phone,” said Professor Seth Pollack of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It was understood that oxytocin released in the context of social bonding usually required physical contact. But it’s clear from these results that a mother’s voice can have the same effect as a hug,” Professor Pollack said.

“It stays well beyond that stressful task. By the time the children go home, they’re still enjoying the benefits of this relief and their cortisol levels are still low. It’s hard to get cortisol up. It’s hard to get oxytocin up. That a simple telephone call could have this physiological effect on oxytocin is really exciting,” he added.

The authors of the study imply that the findings may be useful for understanding what problems may arise when young children are institutionalized or have been neglected, & later in life experience difficulty with relationships. Dr. Leslie Seltzer who carried out the study suggested that this may in part be due to an inability to produce oxytocin in response to the normal stimuli.

The authors conclude, “Our results suggest that vocalizations may be as important as touch to the neuroendocrine regulation of social bonding in our species.”

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