A Baby's Cry and a Mother's Love

Depressed moms have muted responses their crying babies

(RxWiki News) Depressed mothers respond differently than non-depressed mothers to the sound of their crying babies, according to a new study.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Heidemarie K. Laurent, professor at the University of Wyoming, and colleagues analyzed the brain activity of 22 women while they listened to their crying infant or somebody else's. All of the participating women were first time mothers with 18-month-old babies.

The researchers found that mothers with a history of depression or with depressive symptoms had a more muted response to the crying babies, compared to the stronger response of non-depressed mothers.

According to Laurent, non-depressed mothers responded to an infant's cry in a positive manner. That is, they reacted to the cry as a cue to act.

Depressed mothers, on the other hand, showed reduced activity in the prefrontal region of the brain, an area associated with abilities to evaluate information and to prepare to respond to emotional cues. In other words, depressed mothers' were not able to respond as well to the emotional cues of their infants.

According to Jennifer C. Ablow, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and co-author of the study, a mother's ability to process and act upon the emotional cues of her infant will have an affect on the interactions she has with her baby, and consequently will affect the baby's own capacity to respond to emotional cues.

Laurent says that the findings of this study offer new pathways for treating depression in mothers. Ablow considers this study as a "jumping-off point." She says that their next study will assess the brain activity of women starting in the prenatal period through the first year of motherhood. Doing so will allow the researchers to get a bigger picture of how a mother's brain responses shape the relationship she has with her infant.

Depression affects one in 10 adults in the United States. Women are among the groups of people more likely to be depressed. According to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent to 18 percent of women reported having frequent postpartum (after birth) depressive symptoms.

The study - which was funded through grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health - appears online in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.