Neural Processing of Infant and Adult Face Emotion and Maternal Exposure to Childhood Maltreatment

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College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, Psychology


Face processing in mothers is linked to mother–infant social communication, which is critical for parenting and in turn for child development. Neuroimaging studies of child maltreatment-exposed (CME) mothers are sparse compared to studies of mothers with postpartum depression, which have suggested blunted amygdala reactivity to infant stimuli. We expected to see a similar pattern in CME mothers. Based on broader studies in trauma-exposed populations, we anticipated increased amygdala reactivity to negative adult face stimuli in a comparison task in CME mothers given heightened evaluation of potential threat. We examined Neuroimaging studies of mothers with childhood maltreatment exposure (CME) (18–37 years old), who performed infant (N = 45) and/or adult (N = 46) face processing tasks. CME mothers exhibited blunted bilateral amygdala reactivity to infant faces. There was no between-group difference in amygdala reactivity to adult faces. In infant and adult face processing tasks regardless of CME, superior temporal gyrus activation was increased for negative-valence stimuli. Our preliminary findings suggest that childhood maltreatment alters maternal processing of infant social cues, a critical skill impacting infant socioemotional development.

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