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Neural processing of familiar and unfamiliar children’s faces: effects of experienced love withdrawal, but no effects of neutral and threatening priming.

By Esther eHeckendorf, Renske eHuffmeijer, Marian eBakermans-Kranenburg and Marinus eVan IJzendoorn


In the face of a potential threat to his or her child, a parent’s caregiving system becomes activated, motivating the parent to protect and care for the child. However, the neural correlates of these responses are not yet well understood. The current study was a pilot study to investigate the processing of subliminally presented threatening primes and their effects on neural responses to familiar and unfamiliar children’s faces. In addition, we studied potential moderating effects of empathy and childhood experiences of love-withdrawal. A total of 45 students participated in an fMRI experiment in which they were shown pictures of familiar children (pictures morphed to resemble the participant like an own child would) and unfamiliar children preceded by neutral and threatening primes. Participants completed a modified version of the Children’s Report of Parental Behavior Inventory to measure parental love withdrawal, and the Empathic Concern scale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index to measure affective empathy. Contrary to our expectations, we did not find evidence for subliminal priming effects. However, we did find enhanced activity in the right inferior frontal gyrus (involved in self-referential processing) and in face processing areas (infero-lateral occipital cortex and fusiform areas) in response to the familiar child, indicating preferential processing of these faces. Effects of familiarity in face processing areas were larger for participants reporting more love withdrawal, suggesting enhanced attention to and processing of these highly attachment relevant stimuli. Unfamiliar faces elicited enhanced activity in bilateral superior temporal gyrus and other regions associated with theory of mind (ToM), which may indicate more effortful ToM processing of these faces. We discuss the potential difference between a familiarity and a caregiving effect triggered by the morphed faces, and emphasize the need for replication in parents with pictures of their ‘real’ own child

Topics: threat, priming, face processing, inferior frontal gyrus, love withdrawal, superior temporal gyrus
Publisher: Frontiers Media S.A.
Year: 2016
DOI identifier: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00231
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