Joyce Chen ’23
A mother’s greatest task is to provide a nurturing environment for her child to grow, blossom, and thrive in. The absence of maternal love in a child’s life will cause a strain on the bond between the mother and her child. These neglectful mothers, also known as high-risk mothers, have insensitive reactions to their children’s needs. They rarely respond to their children’s distress, and when they do, they are harsh and unempathetic. Stony Brook University professor and researcher Kristin Bernard studied high-risk and low-risk mothers to investigate differences in their brain activity when responding to their children in comparison to responding to other, less familiar children.
Participants consisted of 73 mothers, 42 of which had been reported to child protective services (CPS). The research team utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) to analyze electrical activity within the mothers’ brains, particularly within the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and prefrontal cortex, as these areas are usually activated when mothers respond to their children’s actions. Additionally, a methodology known as event-related potential (ERP) was used to measure the responses of the mothers to their children in comparison to their responses to other children. Late positive potential (LPP) were ERP responses measured when the mothers looked at photos of their child versus other children. During one of the trials, the mothers viewed three photographs: one of her own child, one of a familiar child, and one of an unfamiliar child. The pictures were displayed in rapid intervals for a total of 75 trials. Results revealed that high-risk mothers had non-significant LPP measurements, indicating that they had lower sensitivity to their children’s needs. However, for all the mothers, their LPP responses to their own children were greater than the LPP responses for familiar and unfamiliar children, showing that out of all the children, their own children were the most recognizable and attention-grabbing stimuli.
Dr. Bernard and her team’s findings demonstrate that the brain’s responses reveal how sensitive a mother is during parenting. This study paves the way for the enforcement of more sensitive-type parenting, as the insensitivity of a high-risk parent may lead to the child undergoing neglect or distress. Further studies on the distinctions between parental brains will pave the way for early interventions of the mental and physical abuse of children.
 K. Bernard, et al., CPS-referred mothers’ psychophysiological responses to own versus other child predict sensitivity to child distress. Developmental psychology 54, 1255-1264 (2018). Doi: 10.1037/dev0000508