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Your Baby's Smile Is a Real Rush

with Jasvir Singh

It's not exactly late-breaking news that seeing your baby smile is one of life's simplest but deepest pleasures. But a Baylor College professor used brain scans to show just how rewarding it is.

Lane Strathearn, an assistant professor of pediatrics at at the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, and a research associate in BCM’s Human Neuroimaging Laboratory, found that the reward centers in mothers' brains were activated when they saw their babies smile. (For you science geeks, those areas were the ventral tegmental area/substantia nigra regions, the striatum, and frontal lobe regions, all of which are involved in emotion processing, cognition and motor/behavioral outputs.) The activation was similar to those activated by drug addiction.

Strathearn has conducted research for the past nine years aimed to develop a better understanding of the pervasive problem of child neglect. A goal of his research has been to link early experiences in mothers with the relationship they develop with their children, and understand the biological mechanisms underlying this connection. An earlier study of his found that women who breastfed were less likely to neglect their children.

According to a story from Queensland University's media office about his work (Strathearn is a graduate):

"Our subsequent study showed that the hormone, oxytocin, which is involved in breastfeeding, is also related to secure attachment in mothers and to brain 'reward' activation when they view pictures of their baby," Dr Strathearn said. The study addresses the importance of this initial mother-infant relationship.

 Now, he's doing a study to see whether inhaling oxytocin influences how their brains respond to their babies.

Strathearn thinks that increasing demands for mothers to balance family and work life has caused the basic needs of children to fall lower and lower on the priority list. Unfortunately, physical and emotional neglect is often the result.