Specifying the Neurobiological Basis of Human Attachment: Brain, Hormones, and Behavior in Synchronous and Intrusive Mothers

Department of Psychology and Gonda Brain Sciences Center, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel.
Neuropsychopharmacology: official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (Impact Factor: 7.83). 08/2011; 36(13):2603-15. DOI: 10.1038/npp.2011.172
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT The mother-infant bond provides the foundation for the infant's future mental health and adaptation and depends on the provision of species-typical maternal behaviors that are supported by neuroendocrine and motivation-affective neural systems. Animal research has demonstrated that natural variations in patterns of maternal care chart discrete profiles of maternal brain-behavior relationships that uniquely shape the infant's lifetime capacities for stress regulation and social affiliation. Such patterns of maternal care are mediated by the neuropeptide Oxytocin and by stress- and reward-related neural systems. Human studies have similarly shown that maternal synchrony--the coordination of maternal behavior with infant signals--and intrusiveness--the excessive expression of maternal behavior--describe distinct and stable maternal styles that bear long-term consequences for infant well-being. To integrate brain, hormones, and behavior in the study of maternal-infant bonding, we examined the fMRI responses of synchronous vs intrusive mothers to dynamic, ecologically valid infant videos and their correlations with plasma Oxytocin. In all, 23 mothers were videotaped at home interacting with their infants and plasma OT assayed. Sessions were micro-coded for synchrony and intrusiveness. Mothers were scanned while observing several own and standard infant-related vignettes. Synchronous mothers showed greater activations in the left nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and intrusive mothers exhibited higher activations in the right amygdala. Functional connectivity analysis revealed that among synchronous mothers, left NAcc and right amygdala were functionally correlated with emotion modulation, theory-of-mind, and empathy networks. Among intrusive mothers, left NAcc and right amygdala were functionally correlated with pro-action areas. Sorting points into neighborhood (SPIN) analysis demonstrated that in the synchronous group, left NAcc and right amygdala activations showed clearer organization across time, whereas among intrusive mothers, activations of these nuclei exhibited greater cross-time disorganization. Correlations between Oxytocin with left NAcc and right amygdala activations were found only in the synchronous group. Well-adapted parenting appears to be underlay by reward-related motivational mechanisms, temporal organization, and affiliation hormones, whereas anxious parenting is likely mediated by stress-related mechanisms and greater neural disorganization. Assessing the integration of motivation and social networks into unified neural activity that reflects variations in patterns of parental care may prove useful for the study of optimal vs high-risk parenting.

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