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Keywords:

  • child neglect;
  • oxytocin;
  • dopamine;
  • neuroimaging;
  • maternal behaviour;
  • attachment

Maternal neglect, including physical and emotional neglect, is a pervasive public health challenge with serious long-term effects on child health and development. I provide an overview of the neurobiological basis of maternal caregiving, aiming to better understand how to prevent and respond to maternal neglect. Drawing from both animal and human studies, key biological systems are identified that contribute to maternal caregiving behaviour, focusing on the oxytocinergic and dopaminergic systems. Mesocorticolimbic and nigrostriatal dopamine pathways contribute to the processing of infant-related sensory cues leading to a behavioural response. Oxytocin may activate the dopaminergic reward pathways in response to social cues. Human neuroimaging studies are summarised that demonstrate parallels between animal and human maternal caregiving responses in the brain. By comparing different patterns of human adult attachment, we gain a clearer understanding of how differences in maternal brain and endocrine responses may contribute to maternal neglect. For example, in insecure/dismissing attachment, which may be associated with emotional neglect, we see reduced activation of the mesocorticolimbic dopamine reward system in response to infant face cues, as well as decreased peripheral oxytocin response to mother–infant contact. We are currently testing whether the administration of intranasal oxytocin, as part of a randomised placebo controlled trial, may reverse some of these neurological differences, and potentially augment psychosocial and behavioural interventions for maternal neglect.