Mothers’ neural response to valenced infant interactions predicts postpartum depression and anxiety

Megan Kate Finnegan, Stephanie Kane, Wendy Heller, Heidemarie Laurent

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


It is currently unknown whether differences in neural responsiveness to infant cues observed in postpartum affective disturbance are specific to depression/anxiety or are better attributed to a common component of internalizing distress. It is also unknown whether differences in mothers’ brain response can be accounted for by effects of past episodes, or if current neural processing of her child may serve as a risk factor for development of future symptoms. Twenty-four mothers from a community-based sample participated in an fMRI session viewing their 3-month- old infant during tasks evoking positive or negative emotion. They were tracked across the ensuing 15 months to monitor changes in affective symptoms. Past and current episodes of depression and anxiety, as well as future symptoms, were used to predict differences in mothers’ hemodynamic response to their infant in positive compared to negative emotion contexts. Lower relative activation in largely overlapping brain regions involving frontal lobe structures to own infant positive vs. negative emotion was associated with concurrent (3-month) depression diagnosis and prospective (3–18 month) depression and anxiety symptoms. There was little evidence for impacts of past psychopathology (more limited effect of past anxiety and nonsignificant effect of past depression). Results suggest biased maternal processing of infant emotions during postpartum depression and anxiety is largely accounted for by a shared source of variance (internalizing distress). Furthermore, differential maternal responsiveness to her infant’s emotional cues is specifically associated with the perpetuation of postpartum symptoms, as opposed to more general phenotypic or scarring effects of past psychopathology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0250487
JournalPloS one
Issue number4 April 2021
StatePublished - Apr 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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