As bad mothers dominate headlines, neurological research from the United States raises the question of whether a bad mother switch in the brain can be detected, and if so, whether neglectful or abusive behavior could be prevented, The Times reported Friday.

According to scientists at Richmond University in Virginia, women develop a set of "maternal neurons" that operate like "bad mother/good mother" switches in the brain.

Using brain-scanning techniques, they have identified a cluster of brain cells, created during pregnancy and "switched on" after birth, that appear to correlate with good or bad parenting behaviors.

"We believe that a certain number of these ‘maternal neurons’ need to be ‘switched on’ for good mothering to take place," explains Professor Craig Kinsley, whose research has so far been limited to rodents and small mammals.

"Our research showed that the mothers with fewer than this number of ‘maternal neurons’ tended to neglect or abuse their offspring, while those animals with the lowest numbers actually savaged or killed their own young."

Similar techniques could soon be used to identify human mothers with the capacity to abuse their children. A team at Yale University is already using brain scans to study the areas of the brain that drive good and bad mothering: "We have identified certain areas of the brain where there is a correlation between the level of neuron activity and measures of ‘adequate’ and ‘inadequate’ parenting," said Professor James Swain.

But not everyone is behind the idea. Professor Alison Fleming, director of the Center for the Study of the Psychobiology of Maternal Behaviour at the University of Toronto, said: "There is no single factor that determines maternal behaviour."

"The idea that a woman’s brain is ‘hard-wired’ in such a way that she will abuse her children and that it is not within her power to refrain from doing wrong is based on a misunderstanding of neuro-anatomy. All behavior is dictated by the brain, but the brain is formed in interaction with our environment."

Fleming is also concerned that the new research into maternal neurons could be used to argue diminished responsibility for those who abuse their children.

Professor Kinsley disagrees: "We are all a slave to our brain function. An abusive mother has something malfunctioning in the brain so, in that respect, her behavior is beyond her control." When it comes to studying the brain, questions of "bad" and "good" need to be replaced with notions of "broken" and "fixed", said Kinsley.

"But it’s not a question of whether we excuse a certain behavior. The aim of our research is to identify brain malfunctions so we can work towards fixing them."

SOURCE LINK: Times Online