Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Specific and Rapid Neural Signature for Parental Instinct

Morten L. Kringelbach1,2,8,9*, Annukka Lehtonen1, Sarah Squire1, Allison G. Harvey3, Michelle G. Craske4, Ian E. Holliday5, Alexander L. Green8, Tipu Z. Aziz2,8, Peter C. Hansen6, Piers L. Cornelissen7, Alan Stein1

1 Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom, 3 Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, California, United States of America, 4 Department of Psychology, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, United States of America, 5 The Wellcome Trust Laboratory for MEG Studies, School of Life and Health Sciences, Aston University, Birmingham, United Kingdom, 6 School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom, 7 Department of Psychology, York University, York, United Kingdom, 8 Department of Neurosurgery, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, United Kingdom, 9 Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN), Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark


Darwin originally pointed out that there is something about infants which prompts adults to respond to and care for them, in order to increase individual fitness, i.e. reproductive success, via increased survivorship of one's own offspring. Lorenz proposed that it is the specific structure of the infant face that serves to elicit these parental responses, but the biological basis for this remains elusive. Here, we investigated whether adults show specific brain responses to unfamiliar infant faces compared to adult faces, where the infant and adult faces had been carefully matched across the two groups for emotional valence and arousal, as well as size and luminosity. The faces also matched closely in terms of attractiveness. Using magnetoencephalography (MEG) in adults, we found that highly specific brain activity occurred within a seventh of a second in response to unfamiliar infant faces but not to adult faces. This activity occurred in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), an area implicated in reward behaviour, suggesting for the first time a neural basis for this vital evolutionary process. We found a peak in activity first in mOFC and then in the right fusiform face area (FFA). In mOFC the first significant peak (p<0.001) in differences in power between infant and adult faces was found at around 130 ms in the 10–15 Hz band. These early differences were not found in the FFA. In contrast, differences in power were found later, at around 165 ms, in a different band (20–25 Hz) in the right FFA, suggesting a feedback effect from mOFC. These findings provide evidence in humans of a potential brain basis for the “innate releasing mechanisms” described by Lorenz for affection and nurturing of young infants. This has potentially important clinical applications in relation to postnatal depression, and could provide opportunities for early identification of families at risk.

This research provides scientific evidence confirming what advertisers have known for decades that baby images elicit positive emotional responses of empathy and protection. This is useful research for trial lawyers who are in the business of creating empathy and the need for protection.The article can be accessed from the link herein. David A. Wenner

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