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Neukel, Corinne; Bertsch, Katja; Fuchs, Anna; Zietlow, Anna-Lena; Reck, Corinna; Möhler, Eva; Brunner, Romuald; Bermpohl, Felix; Herpertz, Sabine C. (2018): The maternal brain in women with a history of early-life maltreatment: an imagination-based fMRI study of conflictual versus pleasant interactions with children. In: Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, Vol. 43, No. 4: pp. 273-282
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Abstract

Background: Early-life maltreatment has severe consequences for the affected individual, and it has an impact on the next generation. To improve understanding of the intergenerational effects of abuse, we investigated the consequences of early-life maltreatment on maternal sensitivity and associated brain mechanisms during mother-child interactions. Methods: In total, 47 mothers (22 with a history of physical and/or sexual childhood abuse and 25 without, all without current mental disorders) took part in a standardized real-life interaction with their 7- to 11-year-old child (not abused) and a subsequent functional imaging script-driven imagery task. Results: Mothers with early-life maltreatment were less sensitive in real-life mother-child interactions, but while imagining conflictual interactions with their child, they showed increased activation in regions of the salience and emotion-processing network, such as the amygdala, insula and hippocampus. This activation pattern was in contrast to that of mothers without early-life maltreatment, who showed higher activations in those regions in response to pleasant mother-child interactions. Mothers with early-life maltreatment also showed reduced functional connectivity between regions of the salience and the mentalizing networks. Limitations: Region-of-interest analyses, which were performed in addition to whole-brain analyses, were exploratory in nature, because they were not further controlled for multiple comparisons. Conclusion: Results suggest that for mothers with early-life maltreatment, conflictual interactions with their child may be more salient and behaviourally relevant than pleasant interactions, and that their salience network is poorly modulated by the brain regions involved in mentalizing processes. This activation pattern offers new insights into the mechanisms behind the intergenerational effects of maltreatment and into options for reducing these effects.