The way in which infants develop behavioural, social and language skills is heavily influenced by their early interaction with parents or caregivers. How they react to different types of parenting – from emotionally attached or positive to unattached or negative – is also determined by their genes. The EU-funded INFANT NIRS (Frontal asymmetry as an endophenotypic marker of differential susceptibility to parenting in infancy: A functional NIRS study) initiative wanted to find a simple way to identify individuals whose brains are more sensitive to their parenting environment than others. Such susceptibility to either positive or negative parenting experiences can cause behavioural and developmental problems in children. The researchers focused on a part of the brain responsible for social skills like emotion, problem solving, memory and language. They suspected that differences in activation of the right and left sides of the front part of the brain may be hallmarks of susceptible brains. They used a simple brain imaging technique to see how maternal sensitivity affects these areas of the infant's forebrain. Sensitivity reflects a mother's ability to recognise cues from her baby and respond appropriately to them. In general, the more sensitive the mother, the healthier, more socially developed the child becomes. After observing mothers interacting with their infants during free play, researchers looked at parts of the infant brain that were activated when their mothers talked to them. They found that infants with mothers who showed positive behaviour during play had more positive brain responses to happy than to angry speech tones. While this result was expected, INFANT NIRS found no evidence that the infants' responses were affected by differences in activation of their left and right forebrains. Although this suggests that infant brain imaging cannot predict whether children will develop normal or abnormal behaviour, project results provide important insights into infant cognition.
Parenting, brain imaging, INFANT NIRS, maternal sensitivity, forebrain