Towards a Biological Understanding of Parenting Across Contexts



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Parenting is not only essential for species survival but also has long been apredictor of child success across a number of social, cognitive, and psychological domains. Parenting—like all behaviors—is in part biologically driven. Knowledge of such biological underpinnings sheds light into how parenting operates—providing important new directions for interventions and basic science alike. With the advent of neuroimaging, questions of biological bases for parenting have been answered with greater specificity than ever before. To date dozens of studies have been published on the neural correlates of parent responses to children, though a comprehensive quantitative review of this literature is lacking. Thus, Study 1 of this dissertation was a meta-analysis, using activation likelihood estimation, of all existing neuroimaging studies (N=59) of parent responses to children to identify possible neural networks involved in caregiving. Further, this study examined variations in the neural networks as a function of parent gender, child age, child negative as compared to other emotion, and own child stimuli as compared to another child’s stimuli. Results revealed coordination of emotional arousal, reward, social cognitive, and sensorimotor brain networks across studies. However, one of the most important gaps identified in this study was the absence of neuroimaging studies with parents from diverse backgrounds or contexts with heightened environmental stressors (e.g. poverty, discrimination). Therefore, building on this foundation, Study 2 of this dissertation was a fMRI pilot study of 16 first generation Latinx mothers of a 10-14 year old adolescent. This study examined the neural correlates of parenting in a group that has not been studied previously and a group that is disproportionately affected by threat of deportation/immigration stress, poverty, and limited access to mental health care but a group that also has a variety of unique cultural strengths. Mothers were scanned using fMRI while looking at videos of their own child in a parent-child discussion as compared to another age, gender, and ethnically matched child. Results from this study revealed engagement of similar networks to the overall meta-analysis (social cognition, sensorimotor) with a particular emphasis on empathy related networks as underpinning parent responses to their child in Latinx mothers and parent responses when their child had heightened psychological symptoms (externalizing symptoms). Networks involved in fear and pain responses were found to underpin harsh/inconsistent parenting. Networks involved in motor coordination, which may represent a certain physical hypervigilance or “on edge feeling”, were related to both heightened immigration stress and heightened harsh/inconsistent parenting, suggesting the brain as a possible pathway from unique stressors to parenting behaviors. Implications of such findings and directions for future research are discussed.