The brain oxytocin and corticotropin-releasing factor systems in grieving mothers: What we know and what we need to learn

Peptides. 2021 Sep:143:170593. doi: 10.1016/j.peptides.2021.170593. Epub 2021 Jun 6.


The bond between a mother and her child is the strongest bond in nature. Consequently, the loss of a child is one of the most stressful and traumatic life events that causes Prolonged Grief Disorder in up to 94 % of bereaved parents. While both parents are affected, mothers are of higher risk to develop mental health complications; yet, very little research has been done to understand the impact of the loss of a child, stillbirth and pregnancy loss on key neurobiological systems. The emotional impact of losing a child, e.g., Prolonged Grief Disorder, is likely accompanied by dysregulations in neural systems important for mental health. Among those are the neuropeptides contributing to attachment and stress processing. In this review, we present evidence for the involvement of the brain oxytocin (OXT) and corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) systems, which both play a role in maternal behavior and the stress response, in the neurobiology of grief in mothers from a behavioral and molecular point of view. We will draw conclusions from reviewing relevant animal and human studies. However, the paucity of research on the tragic end to an integral bond in a female's life calls for the need and responsibility to conduct further studies on mothers experiencing the loss of a child both in the clinic and in appropriate animal models.

Keywords: CRF; Grief; Grieving mothers; Infant loss; Oxytocin; Stress.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / physiology*
  • Female
  • Grief*
  • Humans
  • Maternal Behavior
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Oxytocin / physiology*
  • Prolonged Grief Disorder


  • Oxytocin
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone