Parent–Child Intervention Decreases Stress and Increases Maternal Brain Activity and Connectivity During Own Baby-Cry: An Exploratory Study

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Parental responses to their children are crucially influenced by stress. However, brain-based mechanistic understanding of the adverse effects of parenting stress and benefits of therapeutic interventions is lacking. We studied maternal brain responses to salient child signals as a function of Mom Power (MP), an attachment-based parenting intervention established to decrease maternal distress. Twenty-nine mothers underwent two functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans during a baby-cry task designed to solicit maternal responses to child's or self's distress signals. Between scans, mothers were pseudorandomly assigned to either MP (n = 14) or control (n = 15) with groups balanced for depression. Compared to control, MP decreased parenting stress and increased child-focused responses in social brain areas highlighted by the precuneus and its functional connectivity with subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, which are key components of reflective self-awareness and decision-making neurocircuitry. Furthermore, over 13 weeks, reduction in parenting stress was related to increasing child- versus self-focused baby-cry responses in amygdala–temporal pole functional connectivity, which may mediate maternal ability to take her child's perspective. Although replication in larger samples is needed, the results of this first parental-brain intervention study demonstrate robust stress-related brain circuits for maternal care that can be modulated by psychotherapy.