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Cereb Cortex. 2009 May;19(5):1124-33. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhn153. Epub 2008 Sep 11.

Neural basis of maternal communication and emotional expression processing during infant preverbal stage.

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Department of Neurological Sciences, La Sapienza University of Rome, viale dell'Università 30, 00185 Rome, Italy.


During the first year of life, exchanges and communication between a mother and her infant are exclusively preverbal and are based on the mother's ability to understand her infant's needs and feelings (i.e., empathy) and on imitation of the infant's facial expressions; this promotes a social dialog that influences the development of the infant self. Sixteen mothers underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while observing and imitating faces of their own child and those of someone else's child. We found that the mirror neuron system, the insula and amygdala were more active during emotional expressions, that this circuit is engaged to a greater extent when interacting with one's own child, and that it is correlated with maternal reflective function (a measure of empathy). We also found, by comparing single emotions with each other, that joy expressions evoked a response mainly in right limbic and paralimbic areas; by contrast, ambiguous expressions elicited a response in left high order cognitive and motor areas, which might reflect cognitive effort.

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