Relationship with Mom

It’s probably not surprising that mothers excel at recognizing and interpreting the moods and emotions of their infants. Although infants can’t speak, mothers seem to know what their babies are thinking: they smile when their baby smiles and they frown when their baby is upset. Research suggests that the mother’s ability to understand the needs of her infant is very important for establishing a secure mother-infant relationship. However, the neural mechanisms that underlie these behaviors are poorly understood. Such knowledge is crucial for understanding normal as well as abusive and neglectful mothering.

In recent years, several studies have been carried out using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to better understand how a mother’s brain responds to her own child’s cues. The most recent, led by neuroscientist Lane Strathearn and colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine, investigated what happens inside the brain of a mother when she looks at the facial expressions of her own infant. In the study, 28 first-time mothers were shown pictures of their seven-month old child that they had never seen before. (The pictures were taken when the mother was not present.) The pictures spanned a wide range of human emotion and included images of the child making happy, sad or neutral faces. These pictures were then matched with images of an unknown infant. The central finding was that seeing the happy face of the mother’s own infant activated all of the key areas in the brain associated with reward processing. These regions include the ventral tegmental area, substantia nigra and the striatum. This finding suggests that for mothers the sight of their smiling baby is a potent reward and represents a uniquely pleasurable experience. Furthermore, this neural response was graded, so that happy faces led to more activation than neutral faces. Sad faces generated the least activation. In other words, the response of mothers in their reward areas seemed to directly mirror the emotions the infant displayed.

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