Regional Brain Responses in Nulliparous Women to Emotional Infant Stimuli
by Jessica L. Montoya, Nicole Landi, Hedy Kober, Patrick D. Worhunsky, Helena J. V. Rutherford, W. Einar Mencl, Linda C. Mayes, Marc N. Potenza
Infant cries and facial expressions influence social interactions and elicit caretaking behaviors from adults. Recent neuroimaging studies suggest that neural responses to infant stimuli involve brain regions that process rewards. However, these studies have yet to investigate individual differences in tendencies to engage or withdraw from motivationally relevant stimuli. To investigate this, we used event-related fMRI to scan 17 nulliparous women. Participants were presented with novel infant cries of two distress levels (low and high) and unknown infant faces of varying affect (happy, sad, and neutral) in a randomized, counter-balanced order. Brain activation was subsequently correlated with scores on the Behavioral Inhibition System/Behavioral Activation System scale. Infant cries activated bilateral superior and middle temporal gyri (STG and MTG) and precentral and postcentral gyri. Activation was greater in bilateral temporal cortices for low- relative to high-distress cries. Happy relative to neutral faces activated the ventral striatum, caudate, ventromedial prefrontal, and orbitofrontal cortices. Sad versus neutral faces activated the precuneus, cuneus, and posterior cingulate cortex, and behavioral activation drive correlated with occipital cortical activations in this contrast. Behavioral inhibition correlated with activation in the right STG for high- and low-distress cries relative to pink noise. Behavioral drive correlated inversely with putamen, caudate, and thalamic activations for the comparison of high-distress cries to pink noise. Reward-responsiveness correlated with activation in the left precentral gyrus during the perception of low-distress cries relative to pink noise. Our findings indicate that infant cry stimuli elicit activations in areas implicated in auditory processing and social cognition. Happy infant faces may be encoded as rewarding, whereas sad faces activate regions associated with empathic processing. Differences in motivational tendencies may modulate neural responses to infant cues.
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