Neural representation of maternal face processing: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study

Rajamannar Ramasubbu, Svetlana Masalovich, Scott Peltier, Paul E. Holtzheimer, Christine Heim, Helen S. Mayberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Objective: The mother-child relationship may have important implications for emotional development and adult psychopathology. The objective of this study was to examine brain responses to processing maternal faces in healthy adult women. Methods: Ten healthy adult female volunteers with adequate early-life maternal care and a normal relationship with their living mothers participated in the study. Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to examine brain responses to pictures of the subject's mother, a close female friend, and 2 age-matched female strangers during passive viewing, valence (emotional), and salience (self-relevance) evaluations. Results: The main contrast of mother, compared with all others (that is, friend and older and younger strangers), demonstrated the following: first, significant activation in the left posterior cingulate cortex-precuneus (PCC-Pcu), collapsed across all tasks; second, right ventromedial prefrontal cortex-anterior cingulate cortex (VMPFC-ACC) activation during the valence condition; and third, left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) activation during the salience condition. In the region-of-interest analyses, the VMPFC-ACC and DLPFC showed significant activations in response to mothers' faces and deactivation in response to control faces. Among the 3 regions, only VMPFC-ACC activity distinguished the unique processing of one's own mother's face from that of a close friend. PCC-Pcu activations demonstrated a graded response (mother > friend > strangers) and, further, demonstrated differential response with respect to mothering style. Conclusions: The activation in prefrontal and cingulate cortices related to maternal face processing is consistent with their implicated roles in mother-infant interactions, personal familiarity, and emotional and self-relevant processing. These findings suggest a neural basis for maternal attachment and propose a focus for future studies aimed at investigating the impact of disrupted maternal attachment on emotional development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)726-734
Number of pages9
JournalCanadian Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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