The neural basis of responsive caregiving behaviour: Investigating temporal dynamics within the parental brain

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Whether it is the sound of a distressed cry or the image of a cute face, infants capture our attention. Parents and other adults alike are drawn into interactions to engage in play, nurturance and provide care. Responsive caregiving behaviour is a key feature of the parent-infant relationship, forming the foundation upon which attachment is built. Infant cues are considered to be ‘innate releasers’ or ‘motivational entities’ eliciting responses in nearby adults (Lorenz 1943; Murray, 1979) [42,43]. Through the advent of modern neuroimaging, we are beginning to understand the initiation of this motivational state at the neurobiological level. In this review, we first describe a current model of the ‘parental brain’, based on functional MRI studies assessing neural responses to infant cues. Next, we discuss recent findings from temporally sensitive techniques (magneto- and electroencephalography) that illuminate the temporal dynamics of this neural network. We focus on converging evidence highlighting a specific role for the orbitofrontal cortex in supporting rapid orienting responses to infant cues. In addition, we consider to what extent these neural processes are tied to parenthood, or whether they might be present universally in all adults. We highlight important avenues for future research, including utilizing multiple levels of analysis for a comprehensive understanding of adaptive caregiving behaviour. Finally, we discuss how this research can help us understand disrupted parent-infant relationships, such as in situations where parents’ contingent responding to infant cues is disrupted; for example, in parental depression or anxiety where cognitive attentional processes are disrupted.

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