Mother’s Behavioral Corrections Tune Infant’s Brain to Angry Tone

Summary: A new study reports babies’ brains are sensitive to different emotional tones they hear in voices. Researchers suggest maternal interactions may help to shape the same brain region adults use for emotional processing.

Source: PLOS.

The same brain network that adults use when they hear angry vocalizations is at work in infants as young as six months old, an effect that is strongest in infants whose mothers spend the most time controlling their behavior, according to a new study in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Chen Zhao of the University of Manchester, UK, and colleagues. The study indicates that the network recruited in adult vocal emotion processing is up and running quite early in life, and that its sensitivity to anger is partly a result of maternal interactions.

It has been recognized for generations that infants can distinguish the emotional content of their mothers’ voices long before they understand words, based on intonation, tone, rhythm, and other elements. In adults, that emotional content is processed in the frontal and temporal lobes. Brain imaging studies in infants have been performed, but the noise of an MRI machine has made analysis of response to sounds challenging.

In the current study, the authors overcame that limitation by using functional near infrared spectroscopy, a silent, noninvasive method that measures blood flow to cortical areas, while infants sat in their mothers’ laps and listened to recorded non-speech vocalizations that were angry, happy, or neutral in emotionality. Separately, the team also observed the same mother-infant pairs during floor play, quantifying the mother’s interactions in terms of both sensitivity to infant behavior as it changed, and directiveness, or the degree to which the mother sought to control the infant’s behavior.

baby head
The head model illustrates the source-detector distribution where red dots represent sources (6 in each hemisphere) and blue dots represent detectors (2 in each hemisphere), and are held by Velcro headband. The channel locations with respect to the 10–20 system are marked in red (upper head models). Sources and detectors form 12 recording channels in each hemisphere, which are marked in blue numbers (bottom head models). image is credited to Zhao et al./PLOS ONE.

They found that both angry and happy vocalizations activated the fronto-cortical network, and the level of activation in response to anger was greater for those infants whose mothers were more directive in their interactions. The results suggest that greater experience with directive caregiving, or the stress it produces, heightens the infant brain’s ability to detect and respond to angry vocalizations.

Zhao adds: “Brain science shows that babies’ brains are sensitive to different emotional tones they hear in voices. Such tones can cause different activation patterns in the infant’s brain areas which are also known to be involved in processing voices in adults and older children. These patterns also reveal that the early care experienced by babies can influence brain responses so that the more intrusive and demanding their mother, the stronger the brain response of these 6-month-olds is to hearing angry voices.”

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: Zhao was supported by the program of China Scholarship Council (201406990026) while carrying out the study. Professor Kathryn Abel is an NIHR senior Investigator and is funded by a European Research Council Consolidator award.

Source: Chen Zhao – PLOS
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is credited to Zhao et al./PLOS ONE.
Original Research: Open access research for “Is infant neural sensitivity to vocal emotion associated with mother-infant relational experience?” by Chen Zhao, Georgia Chronaki, Ingo Schiessl, Ming Wai Wan, and Kathryn M. Abel in PLOS ONE. Published February 27 2019.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]PLOS “Mother’s Behavioral Corrections Tune Infant’s Brain to Angry Tone.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 27 February 2019.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]PLOS (2019, February 27). Mother’s Behavioral Corrections Tune Infant’s Brain to Angry Tone. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved February 27, 2019 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]PLOS “Mother’s Behavioral Corrections Tune Infant’s Brain to Angry Tone.” (accessed February 27, 2019).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Is infant neural sensitivity to vocal emotion associated with mother-infant relational experience?

An early understanding of others’ vocal emotions provides infants with a distinct advantage for eliciting appropriate care from caregivers and for navigating their social world. Consistent with this notion, an emerging literature suggests that a temporal cortical response to the prosody of emotional speech is observable in the first year of life. Furthermore, neural specialisation to vocal emotion in infancy may vary according to early experience. Neural sensitivity to emotional non-speech vocalisations was investigated in 29 six-month-old infants using near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). Both angry and happy vocalisations evoked increased activation in the temporal cortices (relative to neutral and angry vocalisations respectively), and the strength of the angry minus neutral effect was positively associated with the degree of directiveness in the mothers’ play interactions with their infant. This first fNIRS study of infant vocal emotion processing implicates bilateral temporal mechanisms similar to those found in adults and suggests that infants who experience more directive caregiving or social play may more strongly or preferentially process vocal anger by six months of age.

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