Neonatal brainstem dysfunction risks infant social engagement

Ronny Geva, Koreen Sopher, Lea Kurtzman, Giora Galili, Ruth Feldman, Jacob Kuint

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


The role of the brainstem in mediating social signaling in phylogenetic ancestral organisms has been demonstrated. Evidence for its involvement in social engagement in human infants may deepen the understanding of the evolutionary pathway of humans as social beings. In this longitudinal study, neonatal brainstem functioning was measured by auditory brainstem-evoked responses (ABRs) in 125 healthy neonates born prematurely before 35 weeks' gestational age. At 4 months, infants were tested in a set of structured vignettes that required varying levels of social engagement and cardiac vagal tone was assessed. Data show that neonates with a disrupted I-V waveform, evident mostly by delayed wave V, exhibit shorter latencies to gaze averts in episodes involving direct face-to-face interactions but engage gaze as controls when interacting with masked agents or with agents whose faces are partly veiled by toys. Analysis of variance of infants' social engagement with ABR, neonatal risk, maternal stress and cardiac vagal tone showed a main effect for ABR and an ABR by gestational age interaction. The integrity of brainstem transmission of sensory information during the final weeks of gestation may scaffold the development of social disengagement, thereby attesting to the brainstem's preserved evolutionary role in developing humans as social organisms prior to engaging in social encounters.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)158-164
Number of pages7
JournalSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2013

Bibliographical note

cited By 18


  • Brainstem
  • Gaze


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