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Keywords:

  • Attachment;
  • brain imaging;
  • parent–child interaction;
  • parent–child relationships;
  • parenting;
  • neuropsychology;
  • neurobiology;
  • neurophysiology;
  • child development

Parenting behavior critically shapes human infants’ current and future behavior. The parent–infant relationship provides infants with their first social experiences, forming templates of what they can expect from others and how to best meet others’ expectations. In this review, we focus on the neurobiology of parenting behavior, including our own functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain imaging experiments of parents. We begin with a discussion of background, perspectives and caveats for considering the neurobiology of parent–infant relationships. Then, we discuss aspects of the psychology of parenting that are significantly motivating some of the more basic neuroscience research. Following that, we discuss some of the neurohormones that are important for the regulation of social bonding, and the dysregulation of parenting with cocaine abuse. Then, we review the brain circuitry underlying parenting, proceeding from relevant rodent and nonhuman primate research to human work. Finally, we focus on a study-by-study review of functional neuroimaging studies in humans. Taken together, this research suggests that networks of highly conserved hypothalamic–midbrain–limbic–paralimbic–cortical circuits act in concert to support aspects of parent response to infants, including the emotion, attention, motivation, empathy, decision-making and other thinking that are required to navigate the complexities of parenting. Specifically, infant stimuli activate basal forebrain regions, which regulate brain circuits that handle specific nurturing and caregiving responses and activate the brain's more general circuitry for handling emotions, motivation, attention, and empathy – all of which are crucial for effective parenting. We argue that an integrated understanding of the brain basis of parenting has profound implications for mental health.