The neural correlates of maternal sensitivity: An fMRI study

Erica D. Musser, Heidemarie Kaiser-Laurent, Jennifer C. Ablow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

121 Scopus citations


Research on maternal neural response to infant distress highlights circuits that may underlie differences in quality of maternal behavior. However, it is far from clear which circuits are relevant to maternal sensitivity, as opposed to other maternal behavioral dimensions, particularly after the early postpartum. This study examined maternal sensitivity, intrusiveness, and mother-infant dyadic harmony as correlates of mothers' neural responses to the cries of their own infants. Twenty-two primiparous mothers were observed during an interaction with their infants at 18 months postpartum. In a separate functional neuroimaging session, mothers were exposed to their own infant's cry sound, as well as unfamiliar infant's cry and control sounds. Mothers who displayed more sensitive behaviors with their infant exhibited greater activation to their own infant's cry compared to that of an unfamiliar infant in the right frontal pole and inferior frontal gyrus. Mothers who displayed more intrusive behaviors with their infant showed greater activation in the left anterior insula and temporal pole, while mothers who had more harmonious interactions with their infant displayed greater activation in left hippocampal regions. The roles of these areas in the regulation of maternal emotion and stress, self and other awareness, and empathy are examined.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)428-436
Number of pages9
JournalDevelopmental Cognitive Neuroscience
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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