Maternal cortical response to baby pain and postpartum depressive symptoms

Stefano Bembich, Cristina Vecchiet, Gabriele Cont, Cristina Sustersich, Francesca Valencak, Sergio Demarini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Decreased maternal empathic abilities toward infants have been reported with postpartum depression (PPD). The aims of this study were: (1) To identify mothers’ cortical regions activated by the observation of their own newborn's pain; (2) To study the relation between such cortical activation and PPD symptoms. By optical topography, a functional neuroimaging system, we assessed mothers’ cortical activation when watching their own newborns during a heel-prick. PPD symptoms and newborn's pain expression were also assessed. Watching their newborn in pain activated mothers’ left somatosensory cortex (P = 0.003) and right superior temporal cortex (P = 0.002). PPD score showed a negative correlation with left somatosensory cortex activation (rs = −0.41; P = 0.026), that decreased as PPD symptoms increased. To conclude, an activation of cortical areas, previously associated with empathy for pain, can be demonstrated in the mother shortly after birth. Such response appeared to be dampened by PPD symptoms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12-18
Number of pages7
JournalBiological Psychology
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1 2016


  • Baby pain
  • Near-infrared spectroscopy
  • Parental empathy
  • Postpartum depression

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology


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