Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Brain imaging of our parental instinct

A group of collaborators reports in PLOS ONE a specific and rapid neural signature for our parental instinct:
Darwin originally pointed out that there is something about infants which prompts adults to respond to and care for them, in order to increase individual fitness, i.e. reproductive success, via increased survivorship of one's own offspring. Lorenz proposed that it is the specific structure of the infant face that serves to elicit these parental responses, but the biological basis for this remains elusive. Here, we investigated whether adults show specific brain responses to unfamiliar infant faces compared to adult faces, where the infant and adult faces had been carefully matched across the two groups for emotional valence and arousal, as well as size and luminosity. The faces also matched closely in terms of attractiveness. Using magnetoencephalography (MEG) in adults, we found that highly specific brain activity occurred within a seventh of a second in response to unfamiliar infant faces but not to adult faces. This activity occurred in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), an area implicated in reward behaviour, suggesting for the first time a neural basis for this vital evolutionary process. We found a peak in activity first in mOFC and then in the right fusiform face area (FFA)....These findings provide evidence in humans of a potential brain basis for the “innate releasing mechanisms” described by Lorenz for affection and nurturing of young infants.

The group analysis reveals a significant peak in the medial orbitofrontal cortex in the 10–30 Hz band in the 0–250 ms (first two columns), 100–350 ms (third column) and 200–450 ms (fourth column) windows when participants viewed infant (upper row) and not when they viewed adult faces (lower row). The fifth column shows the integrated map over the three time windows...In order to see the extent of the spread of activity over the fusiform cortices elicited by faces, the group activity is superimposed on a ventral view of the human brain (with the cerebellum removed).

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