Dissociating maternal responses to sad and happy facial expressions of their own child: An fMRI study.PLoS One. 2017; 12(8):e0182476.Plos
Maternal sensitive behavior depends on recognizing one's own child's affective states. The present study investigated distinct and overlapping neural responses of mothers to sad and happy facial expressions of their own child (in comparison to facial expressions of an unfamiliar child).
We used functional MRI to measure dissociable and overlapping activation patterns in 27 healthy mothers in response to happy, neutral and sad facial expressions of their own school-aged child and a gender- and age-matched unfamiliar child. To investigate differential activation to sad compared to happy faces of one's own child, we used interaction contrasts. During the scan, mothers had to indicate the affect of the presented face. After scanning, they were asked to rate the perceived emotional arousal and valence levels for each face using a 7-point Likert-scale (adapted SAM version).
While viewing their own child's sad faces, mothers showed activation in the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex whereas happy facial expressions of the own child elicited activation in the hippocampus. Conjoint activation in response to one's own child happy and sad expressions was found in the insula and the superior temporal gyrus.
Maternal brain activations differed depending on the child's affective state. Sad faces of the own child activated areas commonly associated with a threat detection network, whereas happy faces activated reward related brain areas. Overlapping activation was found in empathy related networks. These distinct neural activation patterns might facilitate sensitive maternal behavior.