Is infant neural sensitivity to vocal emotion associated with mother-infant relational experience?

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An early understanding of others’ vocal emotions provides infants with a distinct advantage for eliciting appropriate care from caregivers and for navigating their social world. Consistent with this notion, an emerging literature suggests that a temporal cortical response to the prosody of emotional speech is observable in the first year of life. Furthermore, neural specialisation to vocal emotion in infancy may vary according to early experience. Neural sensitivity to emotional non-speech vocalisations was investigated in 29 six-month-old infants using near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). Both angry and happy vocalisations evoked increased activation in the temporal cortices (relative to neutral and angry vocalisations respectively), and the strength of the angry minus neutral effect was positively associated with the degree of directiveness in the mothers’ play interactions with their infant. This first fNIRS study of infant vocal emotion processing implicates bilateral temporal mechanisms similar to those found in adults and suggests that infants who experience more directive caregiving or social play may more strongly or preferentially process vocal anger by six months of age.
Original languageEnglish
JournalP L o S One
Early online date27 Feb 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • emotional prosody
  • NIRS
  • mother-infant interaction
  • vocal emotion
  • vocal perception
  • superior temporal cortex


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