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Study Finds Men and Women’s Brains React Differently to Infant’s Cries

Update Date: May 07, 2013 10:28 AM EDT

The saying that 'mother knows best,' might be rooted in the brain. A new research study conducted by scientists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) discovered that the brains of men and women seem to respond differently to infants' cries. According to the study, a mother's brain appears to be hardwired to respond to an infant's cries of hunger. These findings confirm theories that mothers have a different link to their child that fathers do not have.

"Previous studies have shown that, on an emotional level, men and women respond differently to the sound of an infant crying," Marc H. Bornstein, Ph.D. said. Bornstein is the study's co-author and the head of the Child and Family Research Section of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). "Our findings indicate that men and women show marked differences in terms of attention as well."

The researchers recruited 18 adults there were either parents or nonparents. The adults were asked to allow their brains to wander, which is considered to be the brain's default mode. The participants were then told to listen to a clip of white noise for about 15 minutes. The clip had moments of silence as well as sounds of a hungry infant's cries. The researchers measured the participant's brain activity patterns through the use of functional magnetic resonance.

After analyzing the 18 brain scans, the researchers found that the brain images were different between men and women once they heard the infant crying. The researchers reported that once the women participants heard a hungry infant crying, their brains switched from default mode and focused on the cries. For men, however, their brains continued to stay in default mode. The researchers found no differences between participants who were parents and those who were not.

The researchers went a step further to test whether or not different types of cries changed adult brain activity. The researchers used clippings of an infant's cries that the researchers knew developed autism later on. Previous findings have suggested that babies with autism cry at a higher pitch, which might trigger a different response in the brain. When the adults heard these cries, surprisingly enough, both men and women's brain disengaged from default mode to concentrate on the infant.

"Adults have many-layered responses to the things infants do," Bornstein explained, "Determining whether these responses differ between men and women, by age, and by parental status, helps us understand instincts for caring for the very young." This research team also looked into brain activity when the adults were presented with an image of an infant's face from an earlier study.

The study was published in NeuroReport.

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