Pity or peanuts? Oxytocin induces different neural responses to the same infant crying labeled as sick or bored

M.M.E. Riem, Alexandra Voorthuis, Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg, Marinus H. van Ijzendoorn*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


The neuropeptide oxytocin plays an important role in mother-infant bonding. However, recent studies indicate that the effects of oxytocin on prosociality are dependent on perceived social context. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we examined differential effects of intranasally administered oxytocin on neural responding to 500 and 700Hz crying that was indicated as emanating from a sick infant and 500 and 700Hz crying emanating from a bored infant. We found that oxytocin significantly increased insula and inferior frontal gyrus responding to sick infant crying, but decreased activation in these brain regions during exposure to crying of an infant that was labeled as bored. In addition, oxytocin decreased amygdala responding to 500Hz crying, but increased amygdala responding to 700Hz crying. These findings indicate that labeling the same infant crying as sick' or as bored' drastically changes neural activity in response to intranasal oxytocin administration. Oxytocin increases empathic reactions to sick infants' crying, but lowers the perceived urgency of crying of an infant perceived as bored, thus flexibly adapting adult responses to infant crying labeled in various ways.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)248-256
Number of pages9
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014
Externally publishedYes


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