Intrinsic Biases in Maternal EEG/ERP Research Undermine Racial Representation

Vignesh Subramanian ’24

Figure 1: A human electroencephalogram (EEG) with an alpha rhythm.

The use of electroencephalography (EEG) and event-related potentials (ERPs) – two methods of recording brain waves to measure continuous and stimulus-based electrical activity, respectively – is most common in the diagnosis of brain disorders. However, EEG/ERP methodology is also used to monitor the timing of cognitive functions during periods of stress or development. EEG’s high temporal resolution allows for the observation of rapid neural processes in parents following caregiving cues (e.g. infant cries) as they intuitively respond to children’s needs. Specific ERP waveform patterns identified during these responses can directly indicate underlying maternal psychopathology (e.g. elevated anxiety or depression). Despite these benefits, existing EEG/ERP research is severely lacking in cross-sectional data from patients of different demographics; racial minorities, in particular, are poorly represented in Western EEG studies due to several biases intrinsic to EEG testing and equipment and thus suffer from disparities in maternal health outcomes. 

Researchers led by Dr. Penner of Yale University worked to characterize the ethnic diversity of existing EEG/ERP studies of maternal neural responses and identify underreported areas of exclusion in technological research. The researchers conducted a systematic review of dozens of studies investigating sources of racial inequality in EEG research as well as a meta-analysis of 18 studies examining two ERP waveforms in 763 mothers. This review investigated whether the studies tested for a correlation between racial identity and ERP changes (translation into waveform changes associated with mother-infant bonding from pregnancy to postpartum) over time. Researchers also reviewed psychological studies on behavior-level differences in parenting styles and familial roles between distinct ethnic cultures. 

The researchers found that only one of the examined ERP studies had investigated whether the mothers diverged in their moderation of ERP changes along racial lines. The researchers further discovered that the patient samples used across the studies lacked consistent inclusion of Black mothers, overrepresented mothers of specific nationalities for certain races, and were not large enough to detect small or medium ERP moderation effects. The incompatibility of EEG electrode uptake with ethnicity-based protective hairstyles and community-level distrust of participatory research methods were found to further contribute to the gap in knowledge of norm- and cue-based ERP divergence between racial groups. These findings collectively suggest that such samples violate the assumptions of key statistical tests and thus cannot accurately represent the spectrum of mothers’ neural responses to infant cues.

Works Cited:

[1] F. Penner, et al., Racial disparities in EEG research and their implications for our understanding of the maternal brain. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience 1, 1-16 (2022). doi: 10.3758/s13415-022-01040-w

[2] Image retrieved from:


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