Background: Neural correlates of stress regulation via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis have been identified, but little is known about how these apply to real-world interpersonal stress contexts such as mother-infant interaction. We extended stress regulation research by examining maternal neural activation to infant cry related to HPA regulation with their infants. Methods: Twenty-two primiparous mothers listened to the cry sounds of their own 18-month-old infant and an unfamiliar infant and a control sound during functional magnetic resonance imaging scanning. Salivary cortisol was collected at four timepoints in a separate session involving the Strange Situation stressor. Cortisol trajectories were modeled with hierarchical linear modeling, and trajectory terms were used to predict neural response to own infant cry. Results: Mothers who showed less HPA reactivityindexed by trajectory curvature rather than levelshowed increased activation to the cry of their infant relative to control sound across limbic/paralimbic and prefrontal circuits. These included periaqueductal gray, right insula, and bilateral orbitofrontal cortex as well as anterior cingulate-medial prefrontal cortex. Activations overlapped to some extent with previous HPA regulation findings and converged more extensively with circuits identified in other maternal response paradigms. Conclusions: Maternal stress regulation involves both circuits found across stressor types (i.e., prefrontal) and areas unique to the mother-infant relationship (i.e., limbic/paralimbic). The shape of the HPA response trajectory of mothers was more important than the level of such response in defining stress-related neural correlates. Future research should consider dimensions of the stress context and of physiological trajectories to define stress-regulatory circuits.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Biological Psychiatry