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The idea that women are hard-wired to respond to babies is supported in a small new brain scan study from Italy.
Women in the study who listened to the sounds of a baby crying in hunger showed a change in activity in certain brain regions, but men showed no change.
The study included nine men and nine women, some of whom were parents. Most participants were in their 30s. Researchers at the University of Trento asked participants to let their minds wander, and then played a recording of about 15 minutes of white noise, interrupted with periods of silence and the sounds of a hungry infant crying.
In women's brains, there was a decrease in activity in two areas known to be active during mind wandering — the dorsal medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate areas. By contrast, these regions in men's brains remained active when they heard the baby's cries, according the study.
The study shows that "women interrupt mind wandering when exposed to the sounds of infant hunger cries, whereas men carry on without interruption," the researchers wrote.
The brain patterns were not different between parents and nonparents in the study, the researchers said. This suggests that women may be predisposed to care for infants other than their own, the researchers said, though more study is needed to see whether this idea is held up.
Previous studies have shown that women are more likely than men to say that hearing an infant cry evokes feelings of sympathy and caregiving, while men are more likely to say that crying evokes irritation and anger.
Other work has shown that mothers' suffering from postpartum depression have muted brain activity patterns when they hear their baby cry, compared with nondepressed women.
The study was published in the February issue of the journal Neuroreport.
Pass it on: Hungry baby's cry affects the mother's brain, and evokes sympathy and caring.