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Ready for action: a role for the human midbrain in responding to infant vocalizations

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Infant vocalizations are among the most biologically salient sounds in the environment and can draw the listener to the infant rapidly in both times of distress and joy. A region of the midbrain, the periaqueductal gray (PAG), has long been implicated in the control of urgent, survival-related behaviours. To test for PAG involvement in the processing of infant vocalizations, we recorded local field potentials from macroelectrodes implanted in this region in four adults who had undergone deep brain stimulation. We found a significant difference occurring as early as 49 ms after hearing a sound in activity recorded from the PAG in response to infant vocalizations compared with constructed control sounds and adult and animal affective vocalizations. This difference was not present in recordings from thalamic electrodes implanted in three of the patients. Time frequency analyses revealed distinct patterns of activity in the PAG for infant vocalisations, constructed control sounds and adult and animal vocalisations. These results suggest that human infant vocalizations can be discriminated from other emotional or acoustically similar sounds early in the auditory pathway. We propose that this specific, rapid activity in response to infant vocalizations may reflect the initiation of a state of heightened alertness necessary to instigate protective caregiving.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Online)
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2013

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