Can Mom's Voice Heal?

mother-baby

Sometimes science eventually gets around to proving what every sort of knows intuitively. Though research is still in its early stages, it turns out that moms can be one of the great cures for what ails a child. Researchers at Northwestern University are testing whether a mother’s voice can pierce through a coma.  There, voices of family and friends are recorded and then played back to the brain-injured patients through headphones several times a day.

One of those patients, Ryan Schroeder, a 21-year-old college student, was in a coma after being flung from snowmobile into a tree. He started to respond to external stimuli after three weeks of hearing his mother’s voice played over and over.

Coincidence? We’ll see. But a year later, Schroeder is walking with assistance, texting friends and brushing his own teeth.

Lead researcher Theresa Pape, an assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University, suspects repeated exposure to the voices of loved ones could help regenerate the brain’s neural networks. MRI scans of coma patients reveal that parts of the brain light up when they hear family members, but not for unfamiliar voices. 

The new research shows how potent the sound of a familiar voice can be, says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist with Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of “Why Him? Why Her?”.

“It shows why it’s important to have people in our lives that we can call, who will calm us and get our cortisol levels down,” Fisher said.

Ultimately, the study confirms something we instinctively knew all along, Fisher says: “When we call someone we love, we feel better.”   Researchers  from the University of Wisconsin asked 61 girls and their moms to take part in an experiment to determine whether a voice could be as comforting as physical hugs and kisses. The girls, ages 7 to 12, were instructed to give a talk and then solve some math problems in front of a panel of judges. The situation figured to make any kid’s heart pound and blood pressure rise.

Before the girls gave their performances, the researchers measured the levels of two important and powerful hormones: oxytocin and cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that spikes during times of stress. Oxytocin is the bonding, or so-called “love,” hormone.

“It’s generally been assumed that there has to be physical contact for oxytocin to released,” said study co-author Seth Pollak, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin. “We were curious what would happen if the contact was only by phone.”

After their math tests, the girls were sent to one of three rooms. In one, moms were waiting with hugs and kisses and warm reassurances of the girls’ success. “The moms came in and hugged the girls and stroked their hair,” Pollak said. “They’d reassure their daughters with words like ‘I’m sure you did fine. You always perform so well.’ ”

In another room, girls received phone calls from their mothers with verbal reassurances similar to those heard by the first group. A third group of girls didn’t meet up with their moms but were sent to watch the heart-warming movie “March of the Penguins.”

When the researchers later measured hormone levels, they found, not surprisingly, oxytocin rose and cortisol fell in girls who had been in physical contact with their mothers. What was surprising was that the behavior of the hormones was almost identical in girls who had only spoken to their mothers on the phone.

Of course, the study studies relationships, not necessarily love. Pollak allows that when relationships are more complicated and there is tension involved, mom’s voice might not be so soothing.

Pollak says he’d like to explore the effects of a mom’s voice in those complicated relationships in future research.

Copyright © Christine Hammerlund – 2010.Christine Hammerlund is a registered nurse and the owner of Assured Healthcare, a healthcare staffing service headquartered in Gurnee, Illinois.