Parental instinct found in the brain

February 27, 2008
Parental instinct found in the brain
The human brain responds to babies differently than it does to adults.

A possible basis for parental instinct has been found in the brain, according to a team led by Oxford University scientists.

A report of the team’s research, published in the open-access journal PLoS One, describes how a region of the human brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex rapidly responds to the faces of unfamiliar infants but not to the faces of unfamiliar adults. The medial orbitofrontal cortex is located in the front of the brain, just over the eyeballs: it is a key region of the emotional brain and appears to monitor reward-related stimuli in the environment.

‘What we found was that the medial orbitofrontal cortex shows high activity within a seventh of a second of a person seeing an infant face but not an adult one,’ said Dr Morten Kringelbach of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry, who led the work with Professor Alan Stein. ‘These responses are almost certainly too fast to be consciously controlled and so are probably instinctive.’

The finding could have important implications for approaches to postnatal depression, which affects approximately 13% of mothers in the UK. Depression has been linked to changed activity in the nearby subgenual cingulate cortex which is strongly connected with the medial orbitofrontal cortex. This lends support to the possibility that changes to activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex secondary to depression may adversely affect parental responsivity.

The researchers used a neuroimaging method called magnetoencephalography at Aston University to observe the brain activity of volunteers as they pressed a button as soon as an on-screen cross changed colour. Images of infant and adult faces, interspersed between these colour changes and not important to completing the task, were briefly shown for a third of a second.

‘What our experiment revealed was that the medial orbitofrontal cortex may provide the necessary emotional tagging of infant faces as special and plays a key role in establishing the parental bond,’ said Professor Alan Stein. ‘Further research could identify whether the responses to infant faces we have observed are affected – and even dampened – by depression.’

The researchers hope that the results could eventually help health professionals to develop interventions to help vulnerable parents.

Source: University of Oxford

Explore further: Depression's physical source discovered; potential for new treatments

Related Stories

Brain size may signal risk of developing an eating disorder

August 22, 2013

New research indicates that teens with anorexia nervosa have bigger brains than teens that do not have the eating disorder. That is according to a study by researchers at the University of Colorado's School of Medicine that ...

Study maps extroversion types in the brain's anatomy

February 26, 2015

Everyday experience and psychological studies alike tell us that there are two different types of extroverts: The gregarious "people-persons" who find reward in sharing affection and affiliation with others, and the ambitious ...

Cocaine users enjoy social interactions less

January 20, 2014

Regular cocaine users have difficulties in feeling empathy for others and they exhibit less prosocial behavior. A study at the Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Zurich now suggests that cocaine users have social deficits ...

Recommended for you

Artificial beta cells

December 8, 2016

Researchers led by ETH Professor Martin Fussenegger at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE) in Basel have produced artificial beta cells using a straightforward engineering approach.

Key regulator of bone development identified

December 8, 2016

Loss of a key protein leads to defects in skeletal development including reduced bone density and a shortening of the fingers and toes—a condition known as brachydactyly. The discovery was made by researchers at Penn State ...

Researchers question lifelong immunity to toxoplasmosis

December 8, 2016

Medical students are taught that once infected with Toxoplasma gondii—the "cat parasite"—then you're protected from reinfection for the rest of your life. This dogma should be questioned, argue researchers in an Opinion ...

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

vlam67
1.5 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2008
I would not accept this shallow study before The Esteemed Oxford Researchers do a statistically valid cross-check of the study with trials on child murderers ,child abusers, and serial killers that are plenty in custody and death rows, verify beyond any reasonable doubts that these people lacked the expected maternal instincts before throwing out half-baked conclusions. After all, they are doing the research to protect children, are they not? Why not go the extra steps and establishing pointers to mark out potential killers readings? And recommendations for compulsory testing for prospective [parents] and custodians of children??
mattytheory
2 / 5 (1) Feb 28, 2008
mothers with postpartem depression are not like child abusers/murders or serial killers. that is a severe mis-step in logic. their motives are completely different. child abusers/murders and serial killers do what they do because they derive a sadistic pleasure from those actions, whereas a mother with postpartem depression would kill her infant child out of psychological pain, or depression. a murderer can recognize a child first (for a split second) and still kill the whole family. however, that being said, i do not think that this discovery has anything to do with any of these groups. i would also consider the conclusions drawn by the researchers to be invalid.
superhuman
not rated yet Feb 28, 2008
Vlam: Lack of maternal instincts wont make anyone a child abuser it will only make him/her a bad parent. OTOH you can have some maternal instincts and still become a child abuser cause of some other dysfunctions like exceptional pathological aggression, lack of empathy, etc.
And from what i understand this research is a basic research - its goal is to understand why and how normal people experience maternal instincts, its not about protecting children.

On topic, what i find strange is that I really don't like the view of human infants but at the same time i love young kittens or many other young animals.
SDMike
not rated yet Feb 28, 2008
Young animals share key morphological characteristics with babies.

Perhaps superhuman is experiencing a secondary, conditioned, response to babies and/or the environment surrounding babies.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.