Early maternal care may counteract familial liability for psychopathology in the reward circuitry

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Reward processing is altered in various psychopathologies and has been shown to be susceptible to genetic and environmental influences. Here, we examined whether maternal care may buffer familial risk for psychiatric disorders in terms of reward processing. Functional magnetic resonance imaging during a monetary incentive delay task was acquired in participants of an epidemiological cohort study followed since birth (N = 172, 25 years). Early maternal stimulation was assessed during a standardized nursing/playing setting at the age of 3 months. Parental psychiatric disorders (familial risk) during childhood and the participants’ previous psychopathology were assessed by diagnostic interview. With high familial risk, higher maternal stimulation was related to increasing activation in the caudate head, the supplementary motor area, the cingulum and the middle frontal gyrus during reward anticipation, with the opposite pattern found in individuals with no familial risk. In contrast, higher maternal stimulation was associated with decreasing caudate head activity during reward delivery and reduced levels of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the high-risk group. Decreased caudate head activity during reward anticipation and increased activity during delivery were linked to ADHD. These findings provide evidence of a long-term association of early maternal stimulation on both adult neurobiological systems of reward underlying externalizing behavior and ADHD during development.

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