Our long-term goal is to delineate the underlying mechanisms by which poverty leads to maternal mood disorders and harsh parenting. Poverty adversely affects maternal mood and parenting. This effect is greatly magnified during the postpartum period. Many studies, including some by the PI, revealed that cumulative exposure to chronic stressors resulting from poverty leads to wear and tear on the neurobiological systems. However, there remains a critical knowledge gap as to why the postpartum period is a sensitive window when women are most vulnerable to the effects of poverty. The proposed research is innovative because the study will examine the role of poverty-related chronic stress in two neural pathways-emotion regulation and parental motivation-during the postpartum period. The postpartum period is a critical period for maternal depression and infant development, but one that has largely been unaddressed in relation to poverty. The study will compare 28 mothers in poverty with 28 mothers in non-poverty, using multi-methods (i.e., functional magnetic resonance imaging, home interviews, and observations). The overall objective of this proposed research is to identify potential interrelations among poverty, chronic stress, and neural regulation of emotion regulation and parenting among new mothers during the first 6 postpartum months. To attain this objective, we will pursue the Aim#1- Identify the relations among poverty, chronic stress, and neural functions for postpartum moods among new mothers. We propose that poverty-related chronic stress alters activity in the neural correlates of emotion regulation, not only in response to standard negative stimuli but also in response to own-infant cry sounds. The proposed research is significant because understanding the relation between poverty and the neural pathways involved in emotional regulation, particularly in parenting-specific contexts, will provide practical clinical implications in improving emotion regulation to better cope with both chronic and infant-specific stressors among mothers at risk for postpartum depression. Next, we will pursue the Aim#2 - Identify the relations among poverty, chronic stress, and neural functions for parenting among new mothers. We propose that poverty-related chronic stress alters activity in the neural correlates of both parental motivation and emotion regulation in response to own-infant cry sounds. The altered neural activity will be associated with lower motivation to care for the infant, more negative perception of own-infant cry, and less sensitive parenting behaviors. The proposed research is significant because such understanding can provide information as to why poverty leads to an amplified risk for harsh parenting during the postpartum period, and provide scientific evidence for interventions to target both mood and motivational processes to improve parenting quality during the transition to parenthood. Furthermore, the current project will lay the groundwork for a subsequent R01 application to support a longitudinal project, investigating the role of prenatal and postnatal exposures to poverty on the neural and neuroendocrine systems in mothers and infants.
One in four families with infants lives in poverty and $28 billion per year is estimated as the cost for government-funded programs to support low-income new mothers and infants in the U.S. The proposed research is relevant to public health because it aims to identify neural processes through which poverty is linked to a magnified risk for postpartum depression and harsh parenting in new mothers. Thus, the proposed research is relevant to the NICHD's mission because such understanding potentially informs interventions to improve postpartum moods and parenting, which can further reduce the harmful effects of poverty on a child's health.