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Title: Adults' responses to infant vocalisations : a neurobehavioural investigation
Author: Young, Katherine S.
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2013
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Infant vocalisations are uniquely salient sounds in the environment. They universally attract attention and compel the listener to respond with speed and care. They provide a wealth of information to parents about their infant’s needs and affective state. There is a scientific consensus that early parenting has a profound impact on child development. In particular, the sensitivity with which parents respond to their infant’s communicative cues has been shown to affect cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes. The mechanisms underlying such sensitivity are not well understood. In this thesis, adults’ sensitivity to infant cues will be considered in terms of two components, the ‘promptness’ and ‘appropriateness’ of responses, as originally conceptualised by Bell and Ainsworth (1972). Promptness of responses is considered in terms of adults’ ability to move with speed and effort after listening to infant vocalisations. Appropriateness, on the other hand, is considered in terms of adults’ ability to differentiate between functionally significant parameters in infant vocalisations. The effect of modifiable environmental factors on the promptness and appropriateness of responses is also investigated. Finally, a focused investigation of the brain basis of responses to infant vocalisations is presented. Overall, findings demonstrated that infant vocalisations undergo privileged, specialised processing in the adult brain. After hearing an infant cry, adults with and without depression were found to move with greater coordination and effort. Adults were also found to be attuned to subtle parameters in infant cries. This sensitivity was shown to be affected by two participant-level factors, depression and previous musical training. Furthermore, this sensitivity could be enhanced through intervention, as evidenced by findings from short-term, perceptual discrimination training. The notion of privileged processing of infant vocalisations is further supported by evidence of early discrimination of infant sounds in a survival-related subcortical brain structure. Future directions for this work include directly relating current experimental measures of adults’ responses to infant cues with parental sensitivity to infant communication during dynamic interactions. Translating current findings into applied settings would require an investigation of the effects of factors such as musical and perceptual training on sensitivity to infant cues in at-risk populations, such as mothers and fathers with depression. Lastly, an increased understanding of the brain basis of adults’ sensitivity to infant cues will provide insight into our greatest challenge: parenting our young.
Supervisor: Kringelbach, Morten L.; Stein, Alan Sponsor: Medical Research Council
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Neuroscience ; Psychiatry ; Emotion research ; Psychology ; Behavioural Neuroscience ; Emotion ; infant ; parent ; vocalisations ; depression ; local field potential ; deep brain stimulation