Pictures of preterm infants elicit increased affective responses and reduced reward-motivation or perspective taking in the maternal brain

Joyce J. Endendijk*, Peter A. Bos, Anne K. Smit, Anneloes L. van Baar

*Corresponding author for this work

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    Abstract

    Preterm-birth increases the risk of several physical, cognitive, neuromotor, and psychosocial problems in children, and is also related to difficulties in the parent-child relationship. Research suggests that the development of early parent-child interactions in general is affected by deviations from typical infant facial characteristics, which may also be important in the case of small, preterm born infants. Therefore, we examined mothers' (N = 22, of whom 17 had no direct experience with preterm birth) neural responses to pictures of preterm and fullterm infants using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We also explored whether neural responses to preterm and full-term infants correlated with mothers' self-reported tendencies to be nurturing and protective with children, and with mothers' ratings of affection or aversion toward pictures of preterm infants. Results revealed that, compared to pictures of full-term infants, those of preterm infants elicited more activity in specific areas of the brain (dmPFC, right insula, left caudate, hippocampi, parahippocampi, and PAG), that have previously been associated with processing of negative emotions and with empathy. In addition, less activity was seen in one area of the brain (vmPFC) known to be associated with reward-motivation or mental state understanding and perspective-taking. Higher self-reported maternal nurturance was associated with increased activity to pictures of preterm infants vs full-term infants in the caudate, which might reflect approach- or reward-related processing. To conclude, neural responses to preterm infants are related to reward-motivation, mentalizing, negative emotions, and empathy. Future studies should examine whether such neural processing of preterm infant stimuli might underlie difficulties in the parent-child relationship of parents with a preterm child.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number112677
    Number of pages10
    JournalBehavioural Brain Research
    Volume390
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 15-Jul-2020

    Keywords

    • Preterm birth
    • Parenting
    • Reward
    • Negative affect
    • fMRI
    • Mothers
    • INDIVIDUAL-DIFFERENCES
    • GENDER-DIFFERENCES
    • BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS
    • AVERSIVE STIMULI
    • NEURAL RESPONSES
    • PARENTAL BRAIN
    • BIRTH
    • WEIGHT
    • FACES
    • CHILDREN

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