Oxytocin reduces neural activation in response to infant faces in nulliparous young women

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Infant faces have distinctive features that together are described as baby schema, a configuration that facilitates caregiving motivation and behavior, and increases the perception of cuteness. In the current functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, we investigated the effect of a within-subjects intranasal oxytocin administration (24 IU) and caregiving motivation on neural responses to infant faces of varying baby schema in 23 healthy nulliparous women. Overall, infant faces elicited activation in several brain regions involved in reward and salience processing, including the ventral tegmental area (VTA), putamen, amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and insula, and this activation was related to self-reported caregiving motivation. Critically, whereas we hypothesized enhanced neural caregiving-related responses after oxytocin administration, we observed reduced activation in the VTA, putamen and amygdala after oxytocin compared to placebo. In nulliparous women, oxytocin has been shown to reduce neural responses in the same regions in response to social stimuli using other paradigms. Oxytocin might affect neural activation toward social stimuli depending on elicited arousal and personal characteristics. The current study is the first to demonstrate this effect in response to infant faces and thereby adds to specify the role of oxytocin in human social information processing.

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