Depressed mums less responsive to babies’ cries: Study

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

WASHINGTON - A new research has suggested that a depressed mothers show a weaker response to their babies’ cries, which can negatively affect children’s development and have long-lasting effects on mother-infant relationship.

Brain scans at the University of Oregon revealed that their reaction to cries is much more muted than the robust brain activity in non-depressed moms.

Jennifer C. Ablow, professor of psychology, and her colleagues scrutinized 22 women using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see how brain activity of depressed women responded to recordings of crying infants, either their own or someone else’s.

They considered both group differences between women with chronic histories of depression and those with no clinical diagnoses, and more subtle variations in the women’s brain activity related to current levels of depressive symptoms.

All were first time mothers whose babies were 18 months old.

“It looks as though depressed mothers are not responding in a more negative way than non-depressed mothers, which has been one hypothesis,” said Heidemarie K. Laurent, assistant professor at the University of Wyoming, who led the study as a postdoctoral researcher in Ablow’s lab.

“What we saw was really more of a lack of responding in a positive way,” she added.

As a group, brain responses in non-depressed mothers responding to the sound of their own babies’ cries were seen on both sides of the brain’s lateral paralimbic areas and core limbic sub-cortical regions including the striatum, thalamus and midbrain; depressed mothers showed no unique response to their babies.

Non-depressed mothers activated much more strongly than depressed mothers in a subcortical cluster involving the striatum - specifically the caudate and nucleus accumbens - and the medial thalamus. These areas are closely associated with the processing of rewards and motivation.

“In this context it was interesting to see that the non-depressed mothers were able to respond to this cry sound as a positive cue,” said Laurent.

“Their response was consistent with wanting to approach their infants. Depressed mothers were really lacking in that response,” she added.

The researchers also suggested that depression could exert long-lasting effects on mother-infant relationships by blunting the mother’s response to her infant’s emotional cues.

The findings may suggest new implications for treating depression symptoms in mothers.

The study has been published online in advance of publication in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. (ANI)

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