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

Neural Pathways of Maternal Responding: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Free PMC article

Neural Pathways of Maternal Responding: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Sarika Paul et al. Arch Womens Ment Health. .
Free PMC article


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.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.


Fig. 1
Fig. 1
Swain’s model for the brain basis of parental responsiveness. Source: Swain (2010); used with the permission of the author
Fig. 2
Fig. 2
Brain activation in mothers exposed to visual stimuli for own versus control infant. Activation was found within the thalamus, post-central gyri, caudate and parahippocampus. P = 0.0001, uncorrected

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