An fMRI study of the brain responses of traumatized mothers to viewing their toddlers during separation and play


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Abstract

This study tested whether mothers with interpersonal violence-related posttraumatic stress disorder (IPV-PTSD) vs healthy controls (HC) would show greater limbic and less frontocortical activity when viewing young children during separation compared to quiet play. Mothers of 20 children (12–42 months) participated: 11 IPV-PTSD mothers and 9 HC with no PTSD. During fMRI, mothers watched epochs of play and separation from their own and unfamiliar children. The study focused on comparison of PTSD mothers vs HC viewing children in separation vs play, and viewing own vs unfamiliar children in separation. Both groups showed distinct patterns of brain activation in response to viewing children in separation vs play. PTSD mothers showed greater limbic and less frontocortical activity (BA10) than HC. PTSD mothers also reported feeling more stressed than HC when watching own and unfamiliar children during separation. Their self-reported stress was associated with greater limbic and less frontocortical activity. Both groups also showed distinct patterns of brain activation in response to viewing their own vs unfamiliar children during separation. PTSD mothers’ may not have access to frontocortical regulation of limbic response upon seeing own and unfamiliar children in separation. This converges with previously reported associations of maternal IPV-PTSD and atypical caregiving behavior following separation.

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