• Dr. Helena Rutherford  – Yale University, New Haven, USA
  • Dr. Ashley Groh – University of Missouri, Columbia, Columbia, USA

Symposium Presenters

Kristin Bernard, Stony Brook University

Tingyan Liu, University of Missouri

Sarah Peoples, Texas A&M University

Kathryn Wall, Yale University

Full Description of the Symposium

Parents’ processing of infant cues (e.g., infant emotional expressions, vocalizations) is expected to shape their caregiving behaviors. Event-related potentials (ERPs), derived from electroencephalography (EEG), are particularly valuable to investigating neural processing of salient infant cues in expectant and postpartum women with their high temporal sensitivity in measuring the magnitude and efficiency of infant cue processing, resonating with the intuitive nature of parenting. Given the cost effectiveness and ease of implementation, EEG/ERP is also advantageous for large-scale studies of parenting to ensure more reliable and replicable results. Although EEG/ERP research has demonstrated that infant emotional faces are prioritized across early and late stages of processing, questions remain regarding the maternal factors that shape variation in women’s neural responding to infant emotional faces, and in turn, child development. The proposed symposium comprises four presentations that capture new directions in maternal EEG/ERP research designed to address these gaps and identify targets for parenting interventions. In this symposium, a brief primer on EEG/ERP will be provided as part of the introduction to the speakers and overview of the symposium. The first two presentations clarify the role of psychological risk factors on (expectant) mothers’ ERPs to infant emotional expressions. In the first presentation, Kristin Bernard, PhD, will discuss the importance of mothers’ own early attachment experiences in shaping neural processing of infant cues in 81 mothers, highlighting the importance of incorporating multiple assessments of early attachment experiences in contextualizing findings. Building on this work, in the second presentation, Tingyan Liu, BS, will showcase the value of moving beyond one variable of psychological risk to considering the unique contributions of depression and attachment insecurity to maternal neural processing of infant cues in a sample of 200 pregnant women. In recognizing that an important goal of maternal brain research more broadly is to inform understanding of child development, the second two presentations demonstrate the downstream significance of mothers’ neural processing of emotional expressions for children’s development. In the third presentation, Sarah Peoples, MSc, employs a novel approach to considering neural synchrony in face processing between 139 mothers and their infants, and demonstrates that how synchrony is related to infant internalizing symptoms depends on mothers’ symptomatology. Finally, in the fourth presentation, Kathryn Wall, MPhil, will present data for the first time linking maternal neural responses to infant cues with infant developmental outcomes in 94 mother-infant dyads. Taken together, these studies showcase innovation in the application of EEG/ERP to study psychological processes contributing to maternal neural processing of infant cues and the significance for child development. 

Abstract for Presentation 1


Kristin Bernard1, Grace Shariat Panahi1, Calla Lewis1, Suzanne Vaccaro2, Galia Nissim1, Sierra Kuzava3, & Rachel Mercorella1

1Stony Brook University

2University of New Mexico

3University of California, Los Angeles

Mothers’ ERP responses to infant cues, particularly cues of distress, may be shaped by their own histories of attachment-related experiences. When individuals experience a history of sensitive care, they are likely to develop a cognitive framework (i.e., “secure base script”; Waters et al., 2006) characterized by expectations that attachment figures are available, responsive, and effective in times of distress. In this study, we examined whether mothers’ secure base script knowledge was associated with their ERP responses to infant emotional expressions. Participants included 81 mothers of 6- to 12-month-old infants. During a lab visit, mothers completed the Attachment Script Assessment (ASA) and abbreviated Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), from which secure base script knowledge was coded. Mothers’ EEG was recorded while viewing and categorizing pictures of infants displaying different emotions (i.e., crying, neutral, and laughing). Results suggested that mothers with higher secure base script knowledge demonstrated larger N170 and LPP responses to crying versus neutral faces, relative to mothers with lower secure base script knowledge; differential ERP effects varied based on whether secure base script knowledge was assessed from mothers’ autobiographic memories (i.e., AAI) or fictional narratives (i.e., ASA). These results indicate that mothers’ attachment-related representations, likely formed from their own early experiences, may influence their neural processing of infants’ cues of distress. Both secure base script knowledge and ERP responses to infant cues of distress should be explored as modifiable targets of attachment-based interventions that aim to enhance maternal sensitivity. 

Abstract for Presentation 2


Tingyan Liu1, Dana Meyerson1, Ava Overman1, & Ashley M. Groh1

1University of Missouri, Columbia

Although depressive symptoms and insecure attachment have been linked with women’s altered neural processing of infant faces, findings have not always replicated, studies have employed small samples, and shared variance between depression and attachment has not been controlled. This study tests the unique significance of these psychological risks for women’s ERPs (P1, N170, P3, LPP) to infant faces in a well-powered sample.

Two hundred expectant mothers (age = 29 years; 83% White/Non-Hispanic) in the third trimester of pregnancy completed an infant emotion categorization task while electrophysiologically monitored. Women also reported their depressive symptoms (EPDS) and completed the Attachment Script Assessment to assess secure (i.e., secure base script knowledge; SBSK) and insecure (i.e., deactivation, hyperactivation, and anomalous content) attachment representations.

Repeated-measures ANOVAs revealed that greater depressive symptoms were associated with neural responding reflective of heightened vigilance for infant faces and delayed encoding of infant emotional faces (N170; F’s = 3.83-7.12, p’s < .05). Lower SBSK was associated with delayed orienting to infant faces (P1) and delayed encoding of infant distress (N170; F’s = 4.96-5.81, p’s < .05). Hyperactivation and anomalous content demonstrated similar associations with heightened orienting (P1) and vigilance (N170) to infant faces (F’s = 4.08-6.98, p’s < .05). Deactivation was associated with delayed encoding of infant faces (N170) and less sustained processing of distress (LPP; F’s = 4.07-5.42, p’s < .05).

Findings indicate that depression and attachment insecurity pose unique risk to expectant mothers’ neural processing of infant faces, and highlight pregnancy as a potential window for intervention.

Abstract for Presentation 3*


Sarah G. Peoples1, Emily Mallin1, Kylie McDaniel1, Aliuna Schorn1, Chloe Van Noy1, Abigail Varghese1, Elizabeth, J. Kiel2, & Rebecca J. Brooker1

1Texas A&M University

2Miami University

Mother-infant neural synchrony, or positive correlations between mother and infant neural activity predicts healthy childhood development (Feldman, 2007). This pathway supports a theoretically-grounded transition from mother-scaffolded regulation to children’s independent skills (Kopp, 1987). Yet, there is an inherent presumption of mothers as well-regulated, despite rates of peripartum depression, characterized by dysregulation, as high as 26% (Liu et al., 2022). As such, we tested whether synchrony between dysregulated mothers and infants may be a pathway for the conference of risk rather than healthy development.

Mothers (N = 139) self-reported depressive symptoms and infants’ socioemotional behaviors at infant age 1 (= 13.00 months, SD = 1.84). Analyses focused on infant outcomes of internalizing behaviors and positive affect given links with risk for depression. A proxy for neural synchrony was derived from correlations between amplitudes of the Late Positive Potential (LPP) as mothers and infants simultaneously viewed pictures of emotional faces (Tottenham et al., 2009). A significant interaction was probed to reveal that at high levels of maternal symptoms, greater synchrony predicted greater infant internalizing (β = -0.66, p = 0.06) and less positivity (β = 0.66, p =0.07). In contrast, at low symptoms, greater synchrony predicted less internalizing (β = 0.43, SE(β) = 0.22, p = 0.05) and was unrelated to infant positivity (β = -0.30, SE(β) = 0.22, p = 0.17). 

Results provide initial evidence that mother-infant synchrony is not unconditionally adaptive. Specifically, our results suggest that synchrony with a depressed mother may exacerbate risk for negative outcomes in infants. 

Abstract for Presentation 4


Kathryn M. Wall1, Francesca Penner1,2, Jaclyn Dell3, Kathryn Armstrong1,,  Amanda Lowell1, Marc N. Potenza1, Linda C. Mayes1, & Helena J. V. Rutherford1

1Yale University 

2Baylor University

3University of South Florida St Petersburg

Maternal responsiveness through prompt and appropriate reactions to infant cues plays an important role in child development. Event-related potentials (ERPs) can be used to examine neural mechanisms underlying maternal responsivity. Here, associations between neural markers of maternal responsivity and child development were examined in 94 mothers (Mage = 29.19 years; 41% African American, 28% Caucasian, 19% Hispanic/Latina, 4% Asian/Asian American, 7% other or not reported) and their infants (Mage = 7.75 months; 60% female). Face specific N170 and P300 ERPs were recorded while mothers viewed infant happy and sad expressions of their own infants faces. N170 and P300 latency and mean amplitude were used to generate profiles of maternal responsiveness. Three profiles of maternal neural responding were identified. Infant development was assessed with the Bayley Infant Development Scales III. Maternal neural responding profile membership was related to infant social emotional development, but not cognitive, language, motor, or adaptive behavior subscales. Results suggest that the combination of mothers’ strong perceptual responding (i.e., larger N170 amplitude) and fast attentional responding (i.e., earlier P300 latency) to their infants’ facial cues may support more optimal social emotional development in infants. It may be that the strong early response is indicative of increased maternal sensitivity to infant cues, affording timely and appropriate behavioral responses that support bi-directional mother-infant interactions, allowing the child to understand social interactions and emotion processing. These findings support the importance of characterizing neural aspects of maternal responsiveness that may underlie infant development.