Neurobiology of mother-infant interactions: experience and central nervous system plasticity across development and generations

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1999 May;23(5):673-85. doi: 10.1016/s0149-7634(99)00011-1.

Abstract

The optimal coordination between the new mammalian mother and her young involves a sequence of behaviors on the part of each that ensures that the young will be adequately cared for and show healthy physical, emotional, and social development. This coordination is accomplished by each member of the relationship having the appropriate sensitivities and responses to cues that characterize the other. Among many mammalian species, new mothers are attracted to their infants' odors and some recognize them based on their odors; they also respond to their infants' vocalizations, thermal properties, and touch qualities. Together these cues ensure that the mother will nurse and protect the offspring and provide them with the appropriate physical and stimulus environment in which to develop. The young, in turn, orient to the mother and show a suckling pattern that reflects a sensitivity to the mothers odor, touch, and temperature characteristics. This article explores the sensory, endocrine, and neural mechanisms that underlie this early mother-young relationship, from the perspective of, first, the mother and, then, the young, noting the parallels between them. It emphasizes the importance of learning and plasticity in the formation and maintenance of the mother-young relationship and mediation of these experience effects by the brain and its neurochemistry. Finally, it discusses ways in which the infants' early experiences with their mothers (or the absence of these experiences) may come to influence how they respond to their own infants when they grow up, providing a psychobiological mechanism for the inter-generational transmission of parenting styles and responsiveness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn / psychology*
  • Central Nervous System / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn / psychology*
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Neurobiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology