Seeing her baby smile may provide a natural
high for mom.
A new study shows seeing her baby's smile lights up the reward center in a
mother's brain. Researchers say understanding that reaction may help explain
that special mother-child bond and determine why it sometimes goes wrong.
"The relationship between mothers and infants is critical for child development ," says
researcher Lane Strathearn, MBBS, FRACP, assistant professor of pediatrics at
Baylor College of Medicine, in a news release. "For whatever reason, in
some cases, that relationship doesn't develop normally. Neglect and abuse can
result, with devastating effects on a child's development."
Baby's Smile a Natural High
In the study, published in Pediatrics, researchers had 28 first-time
mothers view images of their own child and other infants while hooked up to a
functional magnetic resonance imaging
The functional MRI provided information on activation of different regions
of the brains as the women viewed the images of the babies smiling or
portraying neutral or sad emotions.
Researchers found that when the mothers saw happy images of their own baby,
activation increased in areas of the brain associated with reward and the
neurotransmitter dopamine compared with seeing images of other babies.
"These are areas that have been activated in other experiments
associated with drug addiction ," says
Strathearn. "It may be that seeing your own baby's smiling face is like a
Overall, the mothers' brains responded much more strongly to their own
infants than to others, but researchers found the strength of that natural-high
reaction depended on the baby's facial expression.
"The strongest activation was with smiling faces," says Strathearn.
"We were expecting a different reaction with sad faces."
Instead, they found little difference in the reaction of the mothers' brains
to their own baby's crying face compared to that of an unknown child.
"Understanding how a mother responds uniquely to her own infant, when
smiling or crying, may be the first step in understanding the neural basis of
mother-infant attachment," says Strathearn.
By Jennifer Warner
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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