Parental instinct found in the brain

Feb 27, 2008
Parental instinct found in the brain
The human brain responds to babies differently than it does to adults.

A possible basis for parental instinct has been found in the brain, according to a team led by Oxford University scientists.

A report of the team’s research, published in the open-access journal PLoS One, describes how a region of the human brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex rapidly responds to the faces of unfamiliar infants but not to the faces of unfamiliar adults. The medial orbitofrontal cortex is located in the front of the brain, just over the eyeballs: it is a key region of the emotional brain and appears to monitor reward-related stimuli in the environment.

‘What we found was that the medial orbitofrontal cortex shows high activity within a seventh of a second of a person seeing an infant face but not an adult one,’ said Dr Morten Kringelbach of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry, who led the work with Professor Alan Stein. ‘These responses are almost certainly too fast to be consciously controlled and so are probably instinctive.’

The finding could have important implications for approaches to postnatal depression, which affects approximately 13% of mothers in the UK. Depression has been linked to changed activity in the nearby subgenual cingulate cortex which is strongly connected with the medial orbitofrontal cortex. This lends support to the possibility that changes to activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex secondary to depression may adversely affect parental responsivity.

The researchers used a neuroimaging method called magnetoencephalography at Aston University to observe the brain activity of volunteers as they pressed a button as soon as an on-screen cross changed colour. Images of infant and adult faces, interspersed between these colour changes and not important to completing the task, were briefly shown for a third of a second.

‘What our experiment revealed was that the medial orbitofrontal cortex may provide the necessary emotional tagging of infant faces as special and plays a key role in establishing the parental bond,’ said Professor Alan Stein. ‘Further research could identify whether the responses to infant faces we have observed are affected – and even dampened – by depression.’

The researchers hope that the results could eventually help health professionals to develop interventions to help vulnerable parents.

Source: University of Oxford

Explore further: Scientists discover gene controlling muscle fate

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Study identifies neural activity linked to food addiction

Apr 04, 2011

Persons with an addictive-like eating behavior appear to have greater neural activity in certain regions of the brain similar to substance dependence, including elevated activation in reward circuitry in response to food ...

Smoking may thin the brain

Dec 02, 2010

Many brain imaging studies have reported that tobacco smoking is associated with large-scale and wide-spread structural brain abnormalities.

Brain structure corresponds to personality

Jun 22, 2010

Personalities come in all kinds. Now psychological scientists have found that the size of different parts of people's brains correspond to their personalities; for example, conscientious people tend to have a bigger lateral ...

Brain activity linked to the parental instinct

Feb 27, 2008

Why do we almost instinctively treat babies as special, protecting them and enabling them to survive? Darwin originally pointed out that there is something about infants which prompts adults to respond to and care for them ...

Recommended for you

Study establishes zebrafish as a model for flu study

2 hours ago

In the ongoing struggle to prevent and manage seasonal flu outbreaks, animal models of influenza infection are essential to gaining better understanding of innate immune response and screening for new drugs. ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

vlam67
1.5 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2008
I would not accept this shallow study before The Esteemed Oxford Researchers do a statistically valid cross-check of the study with trials on child murderers ,child abusers, and serial killers that are plenty in custody and death rows, verify beyond any reasonable doubts that these people lacked the expected maternal instincts before throwing out half-baked conclusions. After all, they are doing the research to protect children, are they not? Why not go the extra steps and establishing pointers to mark out potential killers readings? And recommendations for compulsory testing for prospective [parents] and custodians of children??
mattytheory
2 / 5 (1) Feb 28, 2008
mothers with postpartem depression are not like child abusers/murders or serial killers. that is a severe mis-step in logic. their motives are completely different. child abusers/murders and serial killers do what they do because they derive a sadistic pleasure from those actions, whereas a mother with postpartem depression would kill her infant child out of psychological pain, or depression. a murderer can recognize a child first (for a split second) and still kill the whole family. however, that being said, i do not think that this discovery has anything to do with any of these groups. i would also consider the conclusions drawn by the researchers to be invalid.
superhuman
not rated yet Feb 28, 2008
Vlam: Lack of maternal instincts wont make anyone a child abuser it will only make him/her a bad parent. OTOH you can have some maternal instincts and still become a child abuser cause of some other dysfunctions like exceptional pathological aggression, lack of empathy, etc.
And from what i understand this research is a basic research - its goal is to understand why and how normal people experience maternal instincts, its not about protecting children.

On topic, what i find strange is that I really don't like the view of human infants but at the same time i love young kittens or many other young animals.
SDMike
not rated yet Feb 28, 2008
Young animals share key morphological characteristics with babies.

Perhaps superhuman is experiencing a secondary, conditioned, response to babies and/or the environment surrounding babies.