Development and Psychopathology

Regular Articles

Brain and personality bases of insensitivity to infant cues in neglectful mothers: An event-related potential study

María José Rodrigoa1 c1, Inmaculada Leóna1, Ileana Quiñonesa2, Agustín Lagea2, Sonia Byrnea1 and María Antonieta Bobesa2

a1 University of La Laguna

a2 Cuban Neuroscience Center


This investigation examined the neural and personality correlates of processing infant facial expressions in mothers with substantiated neglect of a child under 5 years old. Event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded from 14 neglectful and 14 control mothers as they viewed and categorized pictures of infant cries, laughs, and neutral faces. Maternal self-reports of anhedonia and empathy were also completed. Early (negative occipitotemporal component peaking at around 170 ms on the scalp [N170] and positive electrical potential peaking at about 200 ms [P200]) and late positive potential (LPP) components were selected. Both groups of mothers showed behavioral discrimination between the different facial expressions via reaction time and accuracy measures. Neglectful mothers did not exhibit increased N170 amplitude at temporal leads in response to viewing crying versus laughing and neutral expressions compared to control mothers. Both groups had greater P200 and LPP amplitudes at centroparietal leads in response to viewing crying versus neutral facial expressions. However, neglectful mothers displayed an overall attenuated brain response in LPP that was related to their higher scores in social anhedonia but not to their empathy scores. The ERP data suggest that the brain's failures in the early differentiation of cry stimuli and in the sustained processing of infant expressions related to social anhedonia may underlie the insensitive responding in neglectful mothers. The implications of these results for the design and evaluation of preventive interventions are discussed.

(Online publication January 24 2011)


c1 Address correspondence and reprint requests to: María José Rodrigo, Facultad de Psicología, Campus de Guajara, Universidad de La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain; E-mail:


This research was supported by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (SEJ2007-67082) and by the Canarian Agency for Research, Innovation and Society of Information (C200801000089). We thank the social services staff and all the mothers who participated in this study. We also thank Dr. J. Stieben for his helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.