Functional Neurobiology of Harsh Maternal Parenting
2009 Seed Grant
Benjamin Lahey, Ph.D.
The University of Chicago
Harsh, abusive maternal parenting in childhood is a robust risk factor for many mental disorders
and health problems including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Studies of non-
human mammals reveal that atypical early mothering causes lasting changes in the expression
of genes that are involved in reactions to stress. Dr. Benjamin B. Lahey would like to prevent
these outcomes by helping mothers parent less harshly. Ideally, intervention begins with
mothers when they are pregnant or having problems with their children at which time they are
taught to respond in non-harsh ways. Unfortunately, it is difficult to help mothers to reduce their
harsh parenting. Even when abusive mothers are motivated to change, it is difficult for them to
Dr. Lahey believes that there is a neurobiological reason why the maternal behavior is different
in these mothers. When they experience their child misbehaving or their child defies them, they
have an intense negative emotional reaction that they are unable to control. Dr. Lahey will use
functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to test the hypothesis that harsh mothers will
exhibit both greater activation of brain systems involved in negative emotion, such as the
amygdala, and less coordinated activation of cortical control systems when viewing images of
child misbehavior. This would indicate that these mothers have problems in voluntarily
dampening their emotional reaction. Because these situations happen very quickly, the harsh
mothers are likely to hurt their children in a disciplinary response rather than sitting down and
talking about the misbehavior.
Dr. Lahey also predicts that genes known to influence animal maternal behavior are associated
with maternal neural responses to child stimuli. He will study dopaminergic reward circuits
which, when activated normally, result in infant stimuli becoming reinforcing and play a key role
in mammalian mothering. Lahey will focus on the dopamine transporter gene (DAT1), predicting
variations between normal and harsh mothers.
Understanding harsh parenting at neurobiological levels will lead to breakthroughs in treating
harsh parenting. Programs that intervene and reduce early harsh parenting could have great
public health benefits, just as do programs to reduce smoking related lung cancer.
When mothers harshly punish their children, the children are at a greatly increased risk for a
variety of mental disorders and health problems including cardiovascular health problems,
diabetes, and obesity.
Programs that could reduce early harsh parenting by 50% could have great public health
benefits and save the U.S. billions of dollars in healthcare.
In 1984, Dr. Benjamin B. Lahey published a paper in which he hypothesized that mother’s who
abuse their children may have a lower threshold for child misbehavior and may react more
punitively to it. Twenty-five years later, advancements in technology and a 2009 Brain Research
Foundation Seed Grant have allowed him to test this important hypothesis.