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Sex differences in directional brain responses to infant hunger cries

De Pisapia, Nicolaa; Bornstein, Marc H.b; Rigo, Paolaa; Esposito, Gianlucac; De Falco, Simonaa; Venuti, Paolaa

doi: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32835df4fa

Infant cries are a critical survival mechanism that draw the attention of adult caregivers, who can then satisfy the basic needs of otherwise helpless infants. Here, we used functional neuroimaging to determine the effects of infant hunger cries on the brain activity of adults who were in a cognitively nondemanding mental state of awake rest. We found that the brains of men and women, independent of parental status (parent or nonparent), reacted differently to infant cries. Specifically, the dorsal medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate areas, known to be involved in mind wandering (the stream of thought typical of awake rest), remained active in men during exposure to infant cries, whereas in women, activity in these regions decreased. These results show sex-dependent modulation of brain responses to infant requests to be fed, and specifically, they indicate that women interrupt mind wandering when exposed to the sounds of infant hunger cries, whereas men carry on without interruption.

aDepartment of Cognitive Science and Education, University of Trento, Trento, Italy

bChild and Family Research, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, Public Health Service, Rockville, Maryland, USA

cKuroda Research Unit for Affiliative Social Behavior, RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Saitama, Japan

Correspondence to Nicola De Pisapia, DiSCoF – Department of Cognitive Sciences, University of Trento, Rovereto 38068, Italy Tel: +39 0461 88 3087; fax: +39 0461 28 3066; e-mail:

Received November 26, 2012

Accepted December 12, 2012

© 2013 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.