Species-specific response to human infant faces in the premotor cortex

Andrea Caria, Simona de Falco, Paola Venuti, Sangkyun Lee, Gianluca Esposito, Paola Rigo, Niels Birbaumer, Marc H. Bornstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The human infant face represents an essential source of communicative signals on the basis of which adults modulate their interactions with infants. Behavioral studies demonstrate that infants' faces activate sensitive and attuned responses in adults through their gaze, face expression, voice, and gesture. In this study we aimed to identify brain responses that underlie adults' general propensity to respond to infant faces. We recorded fMRI during adults' (non-parents) processing of unfamiliar infant faces compared to carefully matched adult faces and infrahuman mammal infant and adult faces. Human infant faces activated several brain systems including the lateral premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the thalamus. Activation of these brain circuits suggests adults' preparation for communicative behavior with infants as well as attachment and caregiving. The same brain regions preferentially responded to human infant faces when compared to animal infant faces, indicating species-specific adult brain responses. Moreover, results of support vector machine based classification analysis indicated that these regions allowed above chance-level prediction of brain state during perception of human infant faces. The complex of brain responses to human infant faces appears to include biological mechanisms that underlie responsiveness and a caring inclination toward young children which appear to transcend adult's biological relationship to the baby.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)884-893
Number of pages10
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2 2012


  • FMRI
  • Infant faces
  • Premotor cortex
  • Species-specific
  • Supplementary motor area

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Neurology


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