Brain Imaging Study Finds Evidence of Basis for Caregiving Impulse

March 22nd, 2012 by

Ah, first time you see your baby you finally know what ‘love at first sight’ actually means.  Although first time parents worry about their parenting skills, one look at that sweet little baby face and you vow to try your absolute best.  That initial swoon over a new baby is more than just love, it is a series of chemicals signaling the brain to care for this helpless infant, and ultimately can help explain the survival of our species.  A new study pinpoints these distinct brain patterns of activity.

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as well as Japan, Italy, and Germany, found that patterns of activity in the brains of adults who looked at the image of a baby’s face may indicate a predisposition to care for infants.  Seeing these baby face images appeared to activate adult brain circuits that indicate preparation for speech and movement, in addition to feelings of reward.  These patterns were present even when adults viewed pictures of a baby that wasn’t theirs.

The study participants, 7 men and 9 women, did not move or speak while researchers measured their brain activity via a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner.  Within the scanner, participants viewed pictures of kitten and puppy faces, along with full grown cats and dogs; as well as pictures of human babies and adults.  The images of the infants evoked more brain activity than other picture in brain areas with 3 particular functions:

  • Facial recognition: Activity in the fusiform gyrus is associated with how we process information about faces.  Researchers note this may indicate heightened attention to the expression and movements on an infant’s face.
  • Premotor and preverbal: Activity in the premotor cortex and supplemental motor area is responsible for orchestrating brain impulses preceding speech and movement-before they actually take place.
  • Emotion and reward: Activity in the insula and cingulate cortex is known for emotional arousal, attachment, empathy, and feelings linked to motivation and reward.  Other studies have noted a similar pattern in the brains of parents responding to their child. 

Participants also rated how they felt looking at the images, and noted they felt happier when looking at baby pictures as well as feeling more willing to approach and communicate with a baby than an adult.  Researchers explain that the study confirms what has only previously been inferred by parents, yet note that this activity pattern may not appear in the brain of all adults.  The findings evoke the possibility that studying this brain activity may provide insight into care giving behavior, and potentially provide insight into cases of child neglect or abuse.

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