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The plasticity of parental caregiving: characterizing the brain mechanisms underlying normal and disrupted development of parenting

Final Report Summary - CAREGIVING (The plasticity of parental caregiving: characterizing the brain mechanisms underlying normal and disrupted development of parenting)

The survival of species depends critically on infant survival and development. Human infants are, however, vulnerable and completely dependent on caregiving parents, not just for survival but also for their development. Darwin and Lorenz have long argued that there are specific infant facial features that elicit attention and responsiveness in adults. Until recently this has not been possible to study but neuroimaging has started to reveal some of the brain circuitry. However, it is not known how the brain changes over time in new parents as they gain experience with caregiving. Equally, little is known about the underlying brain mechanisms associated with disruption to normal parental caregiving. We have studied the brain changes associated with normal and disrupted development of parental caregiving in new parents who undergo neuroimaging and psychological testing using standardised databases and test batteries of caregiving tasks. Subproject 1 has investigated the normal development of parental caregiving, beginning before pregnancy, using a longitudinal study of structural and functional brain changes in both women and men combined with their behavioural measures on caregiving tasks. Subproject 2 has investigated the disrupted development of parental caregiving using a cross-sectional design to study the brain and behavioural effects on caregiving during potential disruptive changes to the parent or child. Specifically, the focus has been on A) parental sleep disruption and B) infant craniofacial abnormality of cleft lip and palate. Finally, understanding the full brain mechanisms and architecture underlying parental caregiving has required a mechanistic synthesis of the findings of normal and disrupted development. Subproject 3 has further developed and refined our novel advanced whole-brain models to combine the findings from normal and disrupted development in order to identify the fundamental brain mechanisms and networks underlying the development of parenting.