A Feasibility Study Of An Intervention To Improve Mother-infant Synchrony And Emotion Regulation, And The Contributing Role Of Oxytocin

Principal Investigators

Dates: 6/1/2016 - 12/31/2017

Co-Investigators:  Aleeca Bell, David Gavin, Pauline Maki, Leah Rubin, Ruth Feldman, Rosemary White-Traut

Abstract: Mother-infant (M-I) synchrony is the foundation for healthy development of secure attachment, social competence, stress management, cognition, and empathy in children. M-I synchrony is a process of coordinated social communication involving shared speech, touch, gaze, and affect. The mother recognizes her infant’s cues and adapts her behavior to maximize the infant’s ability to respond. Emotion recognition is an essential precursor of M-I synchrony. Both M-I synchrony and emotion recognition have a biological basis in the oxytocin system. Early behavioral interventions, rooted in a biobehavioral framework, are critically needed to improve M-I synchrony, especially in at-risk women with psychosocial adversity. The goal of our multidisciplinary program of research is to improve M-I synchrony in at-risk women, and it’s precursor emotion recognition, using an auditory, tactile, visual, and vestibular (ATVV) M-I intervention known to improve M-I outcomes. We also aim to understand the genetic-epigenetic role of oxytocin underlying M-I synchrony, emotion recognition, and the hypothesized benefits of ATVV. Our team has shown that higher oxytocin levels and higher activity in oxytocin brain regions relate with improved M-I synchrony and emotion recognition, respectively, and now we are poised to move the science further. It is highly plausible that adverse life experience modifies the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) through higher DNA methylation, and this epigenetic silencing of OXTR might reduce OXTR gene expression and available binding sites for oxytocin. We predict that as ATVV enhances functioning of the oxytocin system, both emotion recognition and M-I synchrony will improve in part through lowering OXTR DNA methylation, thereby increasing the availability of oxytocin peptide binding sites to enhance M-I synchrony and emotion recognition. Building upon our substantive prior work in these areas, the primary aim of this IRSP pilot is to demonstrate feasibility of recruitment and retention of women with psychosocial adversities into an ATVV intervention study at 3-4 months after birth, collecting pre and post intervention data on emotion recognition, video recorded M-I interaction, and blood oxytocin measures. A secondary aim is to demonstrate intervention fidelity of mothers applying the ATVV twice-daily with their baby for 4-weeks. These aims directly respond to R01 reviewer concerns that our team recently received. To strengthen our R01 resubmission, a final aim of the pilot is to show associations and trends among the measures. Twelve subjects will be recruited over one month from the UIC Perinatal Mental Health Registry. We expect an 85% retention rate. We will analyze levels of OXTR DNA methylation (an epigenetic mark), OXTR gene expression (mRNA), oxytocin receptor protein, and oxytocin peptide from blood samples.

Internal Research Support Program