Maternal dopamine encodes affective signals of human infants

Lior Zeevi, Merav Irani, Ciprian Catana, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Shir Atzil*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Mothers are highly responsive to their offspring. In non-human mammals, mothers secrete dopamine in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) in response to their pups. Yet, it is still unknown which aspect of the offspring behavior elicits dopaminergic responses in mothers. Here, we tested whether infants' affective signals elicit dopaminergic responses in the NAcc of human mothers. First, we conducted a behavioral analysis on videos of infants' free play and quantified the affective signals infants spontaneously communicated. Then, we presented the same videos to mothers during a magnetic resonance-positron emission tomography scan. We traced the binding of [11C]raclopride to free D2/3-type receptors to assess maternal dopaminergic responses during the infant videos. When mothers observed videos with many infant signals during the scan, they had less [11C]raclopride binding in the right NAcc. Less [11C]raclopride binding indicates that less D2/3 receptors were free, possibly due to increased endogenous dopamine responses to infants' affective signals. We conclude that NAcc D2/3 receptors are involved in maternal responsiveness to affective signals of human infants. D2/3 receptors have been associated with maternal responsiveness in nonhuman animals. This evidence supports a similar mechanism in humans and specifies infant-behaviors that activate the maternal dopaminergic system, with implications for social neuroscience, development and psychopathology.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)503-509
Number of pages7
JournalSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 May 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Oxford University Press.


  • Dreceptors
  • affect
  • allostasis-regulation
  • infant behavior
  • maternal brain
  • nucleus accumbens


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