Neural pathways of maternal responding: systematic review and meta-analysis

Arch Womens Ment Health. 2019 Apr;22(2):179-187. doi: 10.1007/s00737-018-0878-2. Epub 2018 Jul 9.


Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has increasingly been employed to establish whether there is a specific brain neural network dedicated to maternal responsiveness. We undertook systematic review and meta-analysis of all studies in which healthy new mothers were exposed to visual stimuli of own versus other infants to determine the quality of evidence for a dedicated maternal neural network. Systematic literature review revealed a pattern of specific neural responses commonly induced by visual infant paradigms. Brain areas consistently reported as activated in mothers in response to own versus unknown infant included the left thalamus, bilateral pre-central gyrus, left limbic lobe, uncus, amygdala and left caudate. These regions are implicated in reward, attention, emotion processing and other core social cognitive skills. Meta-analysis, however, revealed a more limited subset of brain areas activated in mothers specifically in response to their own versus unknown infant and suggested considerable inter-study variability. Further work is needed if functional imaging is to become an objective tool for the assessment of neural pathways associated with distinct patterns of maternal care behaviour. Such a tool would be invaluable in developing biomarkers of neural activity associated with healthy maternal care and for monitoring treatment/intervention effects of costly parenting interventions.

Keywords: Maternal sensitivity; Mother-infant; Oxytocin; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Mother-Child Relations*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Oxytocin / metabolism


  • Oxytocin