Synchrony and specificity in the maternal and the paternal brain: relations to oxytocin and vasopressin

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2012 Aug;51(8):798-811. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2012.06.008. Epub 2012 Jun 29.


Objective: Research on the neurobiology of parenting has defined biobehavioral synchrony, the coordination of biological and behavioral responses between parent and child, as a central process underpinning mammalian bond formation. Bi-parental rearing, typically observed in monogamous species, is similarly thought to draw on mechanisms of mother-father synchrony.

Method: We examined synchrony in mothers' and fathers' brain response to ecologically valid infant cues. Thirty mothers and fathers, comprising 15 couples parenting 4- to 6-month-old infants, were visited at home, and infant play was videotaped. Parents then underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging scanning while observing own-infant compared with standard-infant videos. Coordination in brain response between mothers and fathers was assessed using a voxel-by-voxel algorithm, and gender-specific activations were also tested. Plasma oxytocin and arginine vasopressin, neuropeptides implicated in female and male bonding, were examined as correlates.

Results: Online coordination in maternal and paternal brain activations emerged in social-cognitive networks implicated in empathy and social cognition. Mothers showed higher amygdala activations and correlations between amygdala response and oxytocin. Fathers showed greater activations in social-cognitive circuits, which correlated with vasopressin.

Conclusions: Parents coordinate online activity in social-cognitive networks that support intuitive understanding of infant signals and planning of adequate caregiving, whereas motivational-limbic activations may be gender specific. Although preliminary, these findings demonstrate synchrony in the brain response of two individuals within an attachment relationship, and may suggest that human attachment develops within the matrix of biological attunement and brain-to-brain synchrony between attachment partners.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Limbic System / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Neuropsychology / methods
  • Object Attachment
  • Oxytocin / blood*
  • Parent-Child Relations*
  • Parenting / psychology
  • Parents / psychology
  • Paternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Play and Playthings / psychology
  • Vasopressins / blood*
  • Videotape Recording


  • Vasopressins
  • Oxytocin