What can pregnancy tell us about maternal behaviour? A neurohormonal investigation

   School of Psychology and Sport Science

  ,  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Research Group

Centre for Mind and Behaviour

Proposed supervisory team

Dr Jane Aspell

Dr Flavia Cardini


Body and Self

Summary of the research project

Background: Maternal behaviour is a critical factor for the optimal emotional and psychosocial development of a child. Increasing evidence from animal studies suggest an epigenetic foundation of maternal behaviour, influenced by environmental as well as biological factors. Oxytocin (OT) is a uniquely mammalian hormone that plays a key role in socio-affiliative processes and it has been shown to be critical in the initiation of maternal behaviour. Pregnancy is a critical period in a woman’s life where profound psychophysiological changes suddenly occur. Such changes are likely underlined by neurohormonal changes, as confirmed by animal studies. What we know so far in humans is that variation in OT levels in pregnancy differentially affects the later caregiving maternal behaviour. However, methodological and technical limitations in testing pregnant women have hampered this line of research from progressing. Moreover, whereas animal studies suggest a direct link between neurohormonal changes in pregnancy and maternal behaviour, the complexity of human beings might suggest the involvement of another component in this interaction, i.e. the cognitive representation of the infant in the mother’s brain.

This leads to the following research question: Do the neurohormonal changes during pregnancy shape subsequent maternal behaviour?

Methods: A longitudinal study we will first assess the participants’ neurohormonal profile during pregnancy. After giving birth the mother’s mental representations of the baby will be measured. Finally an observational session will provide a quantitative measure of the maternal behaviour.

Dr Katarzyna Gajewska-Knapik, Consultant in Obstetrics and Foetal Medicine at Cambridge University Hospital will collaborate on this project. She has collaborated with Dr Cardini and Dr Aspell for a previously funded project on pregnancy. Their collaboration is still ongoing and she has agreed to assist in identifying suitable participants from the patient pool at Addenbrooke’s Hopsital, and help in the organisation of recruitment.

Where you'll study



This project is self-funded.

Details of studentships for which funding is available are selected by a competitive process and are advertised on our jobs website as they become available.

Next steps

If you wish to be considered for this project, you will need to apply for our Psychology PhD. In the section of the application form entitled 'Outline research proposal', please quote the above title and include a research proposal.

Biological Sciences (4) Nursing & Health (27) Psychology (31) Sociology (32)

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