Maternal Instinct and the Brain
Pat Garcia | March 9, 2008 at 01:51 pmby
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A mother’s impulse to love and protect her child appears to be hard-wired into her brain, a new imaging study shows.
Tokyo researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (M.R.I.) to study the brain patterns of 13 mothers, each of whom had an infant about 16 months old.
First, the scientists videotaped the babies smiling at their mothers during playtime. Then the women left the room, and the infants were videotaped crying and reaching for their mothers to come back. All of the babies were dressed in the same blue shirt for the video shoot.
M.R.I. scans were taken as each mother watched videos of the babies, including her own, with the sound off. When a woman saw images of her own child smiling or upset, her brain patterns were markedly different than when she watched the other children. There was a particularly pronounced change in brain activity when a mother was shown images of her child in distress.
The scans suggest that particular circuits in the brain are activated when a mother distinguishes the smiles and cries of her own baby from those of other infants. The fact that a woman responds more strongly to a child’s crying than to smiling seems “to be biologically meaningful in terms of adaptation to specific demands associated with successful infant care,” the study authors noted.
“This type of knowledge provides the beginnings of a scientific understanding of human maternal behavior,'’ said Dr. John H. Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry, which published the study last month. “This knowledge could be helpful some day in developing treatments for the many problems and diseases that may adversely affect the mother-infant relationship.”
Because the study only looked at mothers, it’s not known whether fathers have similar brain responses to a child’s smile or tears.
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