Mothers with depressive symptoms display differential brain activations when empathizing with infant faces

Delia Lenzi, Cristina Trentini, Emiliano Macaluso, Sonia Graziano, Anna Maria Speranza, Patrizia Pantano, Massimo Ammaniti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Maternal care during the first year of life provides the foundation for the infant's emotional and cognitive development. Depressive symptoms in mothers can undermine their early dyadic interaction, which may lead to various psychopathological disorders with long-term consequences. During this period, the mother-child interaction is exclusively preverbal and is based on the mother's ability to understand her infant's needs and feelings (i.e., empathy) and on reciprocal imitation of facial expressions that promote a social dialog that influences the development of the infant self. To study the effects of maternal depressive symptoms on neural circuits underlying these processes, we studied 16 healthy mothers (H) and 14 mothers with depressive symptoms (D), as assessed by the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale. Subjects underwent functional magnetic resonance during observation/empathizing (OE) and imitation (IM) of the faces of both their own child and of that of an unknown child aged between 6 and 12 months. During OE, D deactivated the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex to a greater extent (compared with H), thus pointing to an increased internally focused cognitive style during rest. Moreover, D, in respect to H, displayed a greater reactivity of the right amygdala, which may be an expression of emotional dysregulation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalPsychiatry Research - Neuroimaging
Publication statusPublished - Mar 30 2016


  • Amygdala
  • Default mode network
  • Depression
  • Empathy
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
  • Orbitofrontal cortex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Neuroscience (miscellaneous)


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