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Front Psychiatry. 2011 Jun 15;2:32. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2011.00032. eCollection 2011.

Maternal neural responses to infant cries and faces: relationships with substance use.

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  • 1Yale Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine New Haven, CT, USA.

Erratum in

  • Front Psychiatry. 2012;3:115.


Substance abuse in pregnant and recently post-partum women is a major public health concern because of effects on the infant and on the ability of the adult to care for the infant. In addition to the negative health effects of teratogenic substances on fetal development, substance use can contribute to difficulties associated with the social and behavioral aspects of parenting. Neural circuits associated with parenting behavior overlap with circuits involved in addiction (e.g., frontal, striatal, and limbic systems) and thus may be co-opted for the craving/reward cycle associated with substance use and abuse and be less available for parenting. The current study investigates the degree to which neural circuits associated with parenting are disrupted in mothers who are substance-using. Specifically, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the neural response to emotional infant cues (faces and cries) in substance-using compared to non-using mothers. In response to both faces (of varying emotional valence) and cries (of varying distress levels), substance-using mothers evidenced reduced neural activation in regions that have been previously implicated in reward and motivation as well as regions involved in cognitive control. Specifically, in response to faces, substance users showed reduced activation in prefrontal regions, including the dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortices, as well as visual processing (occipital lobes) and limbic regions (parahippocampus and amygdala). Similarly, in response to infant cries, substance-using mothers showed reduced activation relative to non-using mothers in prefrontal regions, auditory sensory processing regions, insula and limbic regions (parahippocampus and amygdala). These findings suggest that infant stimuli may be less salient for substance-using mothers, and such reduced saliency may impair developing infant-caregiver attachment and the ability of mothers to respond appropriately to their infants.


cry; emotion; fMRI; parenting

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