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Across species, unpredictable patterns of maternal behavior are emerging as novel predictors of aberrant cognitive and emotional outcomes later in life. In animal models, exposure to unpredictable patterns of maternal behavior alters brain circuit maturation and cognitive and emotional outcomes. However, whether exposure to such signals in humans alters the development of brain pathways is unknown. In mother–child dyads, we tested the hypothesis that exposure to more unpredictable maternal signals in infancy is associated with aberrant maturation of corticolimbic pathways. We focused on the uncinate fasciculus, the primary fiber bundle connecting the amygdala to the orbitofrontal cortex and a key component of the medial temporal lobe–prefrontal cortex circuit. Infant exposure to unpredictable maternal sensory signals was assessed at 6 and 12 months. Using high angular resolution diffusion imaging, we quantified the integrity of the uncinate fasciculus using generalized fractional anisotropy (GFA). Higher maternal unpredictability during infancy presaged greater uncinate fasciculus GFA in children 9–11 years of age (n = 69, 29 female). In contrast to the uncinate, GFA of a second corticolimbic projection, the hippocampal cingulum, was not associated with maternal unpredictability. Addressing the overall functional significance of the uncinate and cingulum relationships, we found that the resulting imbalance of medial temporal lobe–prefrontal cortex connectivity partially mediated the association between unpredictable maternal sensory signals and impaired episodic memory function. These results suggest that unbalanced maturation of corticolimbic circuits is a mechanism by which early unpredictable sensory signals may impact cognition later in life.


This article was originally published in The Journal of Neuroscience, volume 41, issue 6, in 2021.

The noted Creative Commons license for this article applies after August 10, 2021.


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