Nobel-Prize-winning zoologist Konrad Lorenz proposed that it is the specific structure of the infant face, including a relatively large head and forehead, large and low lying eyes and bulging cheek region, that serves to elicit these parental responses. But the biological basis for this has remained elusive.
Now, a possible brain basis for this parental instinct has been reported in research published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE on February 27. This research was led by Morten Kringelbach and Alan Stein from the University of Oxford and was funded by the Wellcome Trust and TrygFonden Charitable Foundation. The authors showed that a region of the human brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex is highly specifically active within a seventh of a second in response to (unfamiliar) infant faces but not to adult faces.
This finding has potentially important clinical application in relation to postnatal depression, which is common, occurring in approximately 13% of mothers after birth and often within six weeks. The present findings could eventually provide opportunities for early identification of families at risk.
The research team used a neuroimaging method called magnetoencephalography (MEG) at Aston University, UK. This is an advanced neuroscientific tool which offers both excellent temporal (in milliseconds) and spatial (in millimetres) resolution of whole brain activity. Because the researchers were primarily interested in the highly automatized processing of faces, they used an implicit task that required participants to monitor the colour of a small red cross and to press a button as soon as the colour changed. This was interspersed by adult and infant faces that were shown for 300 ms, but which were not important to solve the task.
The authors found a key difference in the early brain activity of normal adults when they viewed infant faces compared to adult faces. In addition to the well documented brain activity in the visual areas of the brain in response to faces, early activity was found in the medial orbitofrontal cortex to infant faces but not adult faces. This wave of activity starts around a seventh of a second after presentation of an infant face. These responses are almost certainly too fast to be consciously controlled and are therefore perhaps instinctive.
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 be related to the ongoing monitoring of salient reward-related stimuli in the environment. In the context of the experiment, the medial orbitofrontal cortex may provide the necessary emotional tagging of infant faces that predisposes us to treat infant faces as special and plays a key role in establishing a parental bond.
Also, there is now evidence from deep brain stimulation linking depression to 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.
Postnatal depression is common and there are some experimental evidence suggesting that mothers with postnatal depression have difficulties in responding to infant cues. Further research could identify whether the present finding of early and specific medial orbitofrontal responses to infant faces (own and others) are affected and even suppressed by depression, thereby helping to explain this lack of maternal responsiveness. The present paradigm could eventually provide opportunities for early identification of families at risk.
Rebecca Walton | alfa
How brains surrender to sleep
23.06.2017 | IMP - Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pathologie GmbH
A new technique isolates neuronal activity during memory consolidation
22.06.2017 | Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)
An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...
Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.
Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...
Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.
As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...
Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.
With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...
Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine
Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...
19.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Information Technology