Maternal sensitivity, infant limbic structure volume and functional connectivity: a preliminary study

A Rifkin-Graboi, L Kong, L W Sim, S Sanmugam, B F P Broekman, H Chen, E Wong, K Kwek, S-M Saw, Y-S Chong, P D Gluckman, M V Fortier, D Pederson, M J Meaney, A Qiu

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71 Citations (Scopus)


Mechanisms underlying the profound parental effects on cognitive, emotional and social development in humans remain poorly understood. Studies with nonhuman models suggest variations in parental care affect the limbic system, influential to learning, autobiography and emotional regulation. In some research, nonoptimal care relates to decreases in neurogenesis, although other work suggests early-postnatal social adversity accelerates the maturation of limbic structures associated with emotional learning. We explored whether maternal sensitivity predicts human limbic system development and functional connectivity patterns in a small sample of human infants. When infants were 6 months of age, 20 mother-infant dyads attended a laboratory-based observational session and the infants underwent neuroimaging at the same age. After considering age at imaging, household income and postnatal maternal anxiety, regression analyses demonstrated significant indirect associations between maternal sensitivity and bilateral hippocampal volume at six months, with the majority of associations between sensitivity and the amygdala demonstrating similar indirect, but not significant results. Moreover, functional analyses revealed direct associations between maternal sensitivity and connectivity between the hippocampus and areas important for emotional regulation and socio-emotional functioning. Sensitivity additionally predicted indirect associations between limbic structures and regions related to autobiographical memory. Our volumetric results are consistent with research indicating accelerated limbic development in response to early social adversity, and in combination with our functional results, if replicated in a larger sample, may suggest that subtle, but important, variations in maternal care influence neuroanatomical trajectories important to future cognitive and emotional functioning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e668
JournalTranslational Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 27 Oct 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Adult
  • Child Development
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Hippocampus/anatomy & histology
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Limbic System/anatomy & histology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior/psychology
  • Mother-Child Relations
  • Mothers/psychology
  • Organ Size
  • Prospective Studies
  • Singapore

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