Chairs & Presenters:

Kathryn Humphreys
Victoria Leong
Marion van den Heuvel
Mia A. McLean
Ruth E. Grunau, (Chair)

Details of Research Subjects: Neurodevelopment and Plasticity including imaging work, Parental behavior such as maternal or paternal or parent-child interactions

Ages of Research Subjects: prenatal, infancy, adult

Topics: Neurodevelopment and Plasticity including imaging work, Parental behavior such as maternal or paternal or parent-child interactions


The early parenting environment is critical for child social and emotional development. Using observational and parent-report tools, research has established the role of supportive and maladaptive parenting behaviors in shaping child emotion regulation, social learning, and behavior. Parent and child interactive behaviors likely influence each other in a bi-directional manner across development. Moreover, infants who experience adversity early in life may be both more susceptible to, as well as more likely to elicit, specific parenting behaviors. However, neural biological correlates of parent-child interaction are not well understood.

In this symposium we will explore how the early parenting environment can shape social learning and behavior across infancy and early childhood by considering neural markers of maternal parenting and child functioning, in both typical and vulnerable populations. Dr. Kathryn Humphreys will present on early caregiving behaviors associated with structural development of stress-sensitive brain regions in infancy. Using simultaneous electroencephalography (EEG) within an experimental study design, Dr. Victoria Leong will explore how parent-infant neural dynamics shape social learning. Dr. Marion van den Heuvel will present work from an ongoing project examining mother-infant neural and behavioral synchrony in the context of maternal perinatal anxiety. Utilizing a longitudinal approach, Dr. Mia McLean will discuss how positive parenting behaviors may ameliorate relationships between exposure to neonatal pain-related stress, early life brain development and trajectories of anxiety/depressive symptoms, in children born very preterm. This symposium uses a variety of approaches to further understanding of neural correlates underlying the important role parents play in child social and emotional development.



Kathryn L. Humphreys1, Lucy S. King2, Emily Dennis3, & Ian H. Gotlib2

1 Department of Psychology and Human Development, Vanderbilt University

2 Department of Psychology, Stanford University

3 Department of Neurology, University of Utah School of Medicine

Infancy is a developmental period characterized by significant brain plasticity. In particular, early environmental experiences shape brain development, with stress-sensitive brain regions (e.g., the hippocampus) being particularly influenced by received caregiving. One dimension of caregiving that exists even in contexts not typically thought to be “adverse” or atypical is intrusiveness, a set of behaviors that are “adult led” and indicate that the mother is imposing her agenda on the child (e.g., offering a barrage of physical or verbal interactions, not allowing the child to influence the pace or focus of play, engaging in excessive physical touch). Here, we examined the relation between observer-rated intrusive behavior during the repeated Still-Face Procedure in 111 mother–infant dyads (infant age 6.77 months; 50% male) and hippocampal volume (available in 59 infants). Higher levels of intrusive behavior were associated with smaller right (beta=-.28, t(56)=-2.18, p=.03; R-square=.08), but not left, hippocampal volume (beta=-.18, t(56)=-1.18, p=.19; R-square=.03). Furthermore, the association between intrusiveness and right hippocampal volume held after accounting for infant stress exposure, indicating potential specificity of caregiving. These findings were not moderated by sex. Our results suggest that variation in typical caregiving, particularly intrusiveness, influence infant brain development, such that more adult-led caregiving behaviors lead to smaller hippocampal volume in infants.


Victoria Leong1,2, Valdas Noreika1, Sam Wass3

1 Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

2 Division of Psychology, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

3 School of Psychology, University of East London, London, UK

Infants learn vicariously through observation, but how the infant brain accomplishes this feat remains unknown. Here, electroencephalography (EEG) signals were simultaneously measured from forty-seven mother-infant dyads (10.9 months) during a social learning task. First, infants observed mothers demonstrate positive or negative emotions toward novel toys. Next, we assessed how these maternally modelled emotions influenced infants’ subsequent toy interaction (i.e. affective social referencing, a form of social learning).

Two performance indices were computed: Valence (a trait-level index of infants’ overall bias toward the positively or negatively modelled object; computed by participant), and Likelihood (given the infant’s bias, a state-level index of whether s/he utilised the relevant emotional information from the parent to influence behaviour on each trial). Each performance index was then correlated to mothers’ and infants’ intra-brain and interpersonal neural connectivity indices (phase-locking value, PLV) to identify the respective neural correlates.

At the trial level, an increased likelihood of infant social learning and faster responding was predicted by higher mother-infant Alpha (6-9 Hz) interpersonal neural connectivity. Stronger dyadic neural connectivity was in turn associated with extended ostensive eye contact and higher-pitched maternal utterances. Conversely, intra-infant neural connectivity predicted infants’ overall learning valence (i.e. bias toward positive/negative emotional information) but not learning likelihood or response latency. Therefore, interpersonal neural connectivity is a mechanism that underpins infants’ readiness to learn from social partners during dynamic interactions.


Marion I. van den Heuvel1, Myrthe Broekhorst1

1Department of Cognitive Neuropsychology, Tilburg University, The Netherlands

Most mothers naturally connect with their infant after birth, but not all do. As a result of pre- and postnatal exposure to maternal anxiety, mother and infant may both develop characteristics, such as maternal hypervigilance and difficult infant temperament, which increases the risk for disturbed mother-infant interactions postnatally. These characteristics are likely to interact, leading to a vicious cycle that is hard to break without intervention.

The aim of the Brains in Sync (BIS) Project is to identify the behavioral predictors and neural bases of mother-infant interaction in the context of maternal perinatal anxiety. The interaction patterns and brain functioning of anxious (N=50) and well-functioning mother-infant pairs (N=50) will be compared by employing innovative techniques such as dual-EEG measurement and experience sampling method (ESM). Dual-EEG will be measured by applying EEG on mother and infant simultaneously during three interaction sessions of 5 minutes: free play, bedtime story (book), and low-contact (mother looks at phone). In this talk, the project will be introduced and preliminary results will be presented.

This project may transform the way we understand how mothers and infants are connected on a biological level and could lead to the identification of a novel brain-to-brain synchrony biomarker for identifying at-risk mother-infant dyads. Importantly, results of this project will not only elucidate how maternal prenatal anxiety can leave long-lasting biological traces on mothers, infants, and dyads, but also provide unique knowledge on how to get mother and infant back on the same wavelength, both figuratively and literally.


McLean, M.A. 1,2, Synnes, A.2,3, Miller, S.P.4, Grunau, R. E.1,2,3

1BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Vancouver, Canada

2Department of Pediatrics, University of British Columbia

3BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre, Vancouver, Canada

4Department of Paediatrics (Neurology), The Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto

Internalizing problems (anxiety/depressive symptoms) are highly prevalent in children born very preterm. While childhood internalizing behaviors develop and are maintained within a multilevel biopsychosocial ecological system, longitudinal studies considering the interplay between early stress, brain development and parenting are scant. We previously established that, beyond clinical factors related to prematurity, neonatal pain-related stress of invasive procedures in the neonatal intensive care unit (~10 daily), is associated with altered brain development and child behavior. Now we examined how vulnerability to internalizing behaviors develops across early childhood, considering the role of early pain/stress and neonatal brain development in regions affected by stress (e.g. hippocampus), in children born very preterm. Importantly, we investigated whether specific parenting interactions may ameliorate effects of early pain/stress and brain dysfunction, thereby reducing risk of internalizing problems in this vulnerable population. In a prospective longitudinal cohort, infants born 24-32 weeks gestation (N= 132) were followed from birth, at term and ages 1.5, 3, 4.5 years. Utilizing serial neuroimaging (MRI, DTI) at early-life and term equivalent age, we found that hippocampal volume at term is related to internalizing behaviors in early childhood at lower, but not higher levels of parent sensitivity, suggesting a buffering role of supportive parenting. Thus our work identifies specific parenting behaviors that may mitigate development of child internalizing behaviors, with potential implications for clinic and community.