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Women and Infants Mental Health Program

Brain and Behavior / Imaging Studies

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) offers a unique window into the brain, allowing researchers to view a person's response to stimuli, such as photos, sounds and words in real time.  Research has shown that mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia impact certain areas of the brain, and this knowledge has influenced specialized treatments aimed at improving these disorders.   However, not much is known about how parenting affects the brain, especially in parents struggling with mental health disorders, poverty, substance abuse and other stressors.  The WIMH Program research team is using fMRI scans to examine the relationship between brain function and the parenting role.

Research Activity

The Functional Neuroanatomy of Human Parental Care

This study aims to discover the brain structural and functional underpinnings of parental thoughts and behaviors, which are key contributors of parental health and infant development. Eligible participants will complete interviews and functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) brain scanning at two time points (2 - 4 weeks and 3-4 months postpartum). We will collect audio samples of the baby crying and pictures of the baby that will be shown to the parent in the fMRI scanner.   We hypothesize that the level of parental preoccupations regarding their newborn infant and involving anxious, intrusive, obsessive-compulsive-like thoughts will be related to the levels of neural activation and saliva levels of stress hormones in response to infant cries. We further predict that the responses of parent’s brains to stimuli from their own infants will be stronger than from control “stranger” infants. Finally, we will look for differential responses with respect to psychosocial and behavioral variables such as breastfeeding. 

James Swain (PI), Carolyn Dayton, Nicholas Giardino, Shao-Hsuan Ho, Maria Muzik and Suzanne Perkins

fMRI Caregiving Study

This study examines whether helping an unrelated partner would activate regions in the brain also activated during maternal caregiving , and if this brain activation would be a function of trust between a helper and recipient, a function of parenting experience (parents vs. non-parents), and if brain regions activated in helping are also associated with accelerated stress recovery and down-regulation of areas of the brain associated with stress and threat.  In the fMRI scanner, we will prime parenting/caregiving by showing images of children and audio recordings of children. The participant will also complete a motivated performance task, in order to help herself avoid a potential stressful consequence.  The participant will be given an opportunity to “help” their partner to also avoid a stressful consequence. After the Helping Task, the participants will be told to prepare for a speech in the scanner. In addition to brain imaging, physiological data (heart rate, breathing rate, etc.) will also be collected during this task. After the Stress Task is over, we will continue collecting physiological data when the participants are scanned for anatomical images.  Once all data is collected we will be able to compare parents to non-parents, to see if their responses differed significantly.

James Swain (PI), Shao-Hsuan Ho

Circle of Security/fMRI

Women enrolled in the Circle of Security study, which is a 12 week attachment-based parenting intervention group that aims to shift patterns of attachment/caregiving interactions in high-risk mother-child dyads to more developmentally appropriate pathways, also completed fMRI brain scans before and after participation. For more information on COS, please see the Interventions/Treatments section.

Results suggest a link between maternal psychopathology and diminished neural response in brain regions that are integral in self-reflection.  A history of depression and anxiety appear to alter brain responses that may be important for parenting, suggesting targets for intervention and improved child mental health.

Maria Muzik (PI), Katherine Rosenblum and Sheila Marcus

Selected Publications

Swain, J. E., & Ho, S. S. (2012). What's in a baby-cry? Locationist and constructionist frameworks in parental brain responses. Behav Brain Sci, 35(3), 167-168.

Kim, P., Feldman, R., Mayes, L. C., Eicher, V., Thompson, N., Leckman, J. F., & Swain, J. E. (2011). Breastfeeding, brain activation to own infant cry, and maternal sensitivity. J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 52(8), 907-915.

Swain, J. E. (2011). Becoming a parent: biobehavioral and brain science perspectives. Curr Probl Pediatr Adolesc Health Care, 41(7), 192-196.

Swain, J. E. (2011). The human parental brain: in vivo neuroimaging. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry, 35(5), 1242-1254.

Swain, J. E., Kim, P., & Ho, S. S. (2011). Neuroendocrinology of parental response to baby-cry. J Neuroendocrinol, 23(11), 1036-1041.

Kim, P., Leckman, J. F., Mayes, L. C., Feldman, R., Wang, X., & Swain, J. E. (2010). The plasticity of human maternal brain: longitudinal changes in brain anatomy during the early postpartum period. Behav Neurosci, 124(5), 695-700.

Kim, P., Leckman, J. F., Mayes, L. C., Newman, M. A., Feldman, R., & Swain, J. E. (2010). Perceived quality of maternal care in childhood and structure and function of mothers' brain. Dev Sci, 13(4), 662-673.

Swain, J. E. (2008). Baby stimuli and the parent brain: functional neuroimaging of the neural substrates of parent-infant attachment. Psychiatry, 5(8), 28-36.