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Mother-infant interactions and regional brain volumes in infancy: an MRI study

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Vaheshta Sethna, Ines Pote, Siying Wang, Maria Gudbrandsen, Anna Blasi, Caroline McCusker, Eileen Daly, Emily Perry, Kerrie P. H. Adams, Maria Kuklisova-Murgasova, Paula Busuulwa, Sarah Lloyd-Fox, Lynne Murray, Mark H. Johnson, Steven C. R. Williams, Declan G. M. Murphy, Michael C. Craig, Grainne M. McAlonan

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2379-2388
JournalBrain structure & function
Issue number5
Early online date3 Dec 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2017


King's Authors


It is generally agreed that the human brain is responsive to environmental influences, and that the male brain may be particularly sensitive to early adversity. However, this is largely based on retrospective studies of older children and adolescents exposed to extreme environments in childhood. Less is understood about how normative variations in parent–child interactions are associated with the development of the infant brain in typical settings. To address this, we used magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the relationship between observational measures of mother–infant interactions and regional brain volumes in a community sample of 3- to 6-month-old infants (N = 39). In addition, we examined whether this relationship differed in male and female infants. We found that lower maternal sensitivity was correlated with smaller subcortical grey matter volumes in the whole sample, and that this was similar in both sexes. However, male infants who showed greater levels of positive communication and engagement during early interactions had smaller cerebellar volumes. These preliminary findings suggest that variations in mother–infant interaction dimensions are associated with differences in infant brain development. Although the study is cross-sectional and causation cannot be inferred, the findings reveal a dynamic interaction between brain and environment that may be important when considering interventions to optimize infant outcomes.

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