Chronic trauma impairs the neural basis of empathy in mothers: Relations to parenting and children's empathic abilities.


Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, 46150, Israel. Electronic address: [Email]


Early life stress carries long-term negative consequences for children's well-being and maturation of the social brain. Here, we utilize a unique cohort to test its effects on mothers' social brain, targeting mothers' neural empathic response in relation to caregiving and child empathic abilities. Mother-child dyads living in a zone of repeated war-related trauma were followed from early childhood and mother-child behavioral synchrony was repeatedly observed. At pre-adolescence(11-13 years) children's empathic abilities were assessed and mothers(N = 88, N = 44 war-exposed) underwent magnetoencephalography(MEG) while exposed to vicarious pain. All mothers showed alpha suppression in sensorimotor regions, indicating automatic response to others' pain. However, trauma-exposed mothers did not exhibit gamma oscillations in viceromotor cortex, a neural marker of mature empathy which utilizes interoceptive mechanisms for higher-order understanding and does not emerge before adulthood. Mother-child synchrony across the first decade predicted mothers' viceromotor gamma, and both synchrony and maternal viceromotor gamma mediated the relations between war-exposure and child empathic abilities, possibly charting a cross-generational pathway from mothers' mature neural empathy to children's empathic capacities. Our findings are first to probe the maternal social brain in adolescence in relation to parenting and underscore the need for targeted interventions to mothers raising children in contexts of chronic stress.


Empathy,Gamma oscillations,Longitudinal studies,Magnetoencephalography,Mother-child synchrony,Trauma,