A new study has revealed that some women are born with a bad mother switch.
Researchers at Richmond University in Virginia said that women develop a set of "maternal neurons" that operate like "bad mother/good mother" switches in the brain.
Using brain-scanning techniques, they have identified a cluster of brain cells, created during pregnancy and "switched on" after birth, that appear to correlate with good or bad parenting behaviours.
"We believe that a certain number of these 'maternal neurons' need to be 'switched on' for good mothering to take place," News.com.au quoted Professor Craig Kinsley, whose research has so far been limited to rodents and small mammals, as saying.
"Our research showed that the mothers with fewer than this number of 'maternal neurons' tended to neglect or abuse their offspring, while those animals with the lowest numbers actually savaged or killed their own young," he added.
Similar techniques could soon be used to identify human mothers with the capacity to abuse their children.
A team at Yale University is already using brain scans to study the areas of the brain that drive good and bad mothering.
"We have identified certain areas of the brain where there is a correlation between the level of neuron activity and measures of 'adequate' and 'inadequate' parenting," said Professor James Swain.
However, not everyone is supporting the idea.
"There is no single factor that determines maternal behaviour," said Professor Alison Fleming.
"The idea that a woman's brain is 'hard-wired' in such a way that she will abuse her children and that it is not within her power to refrain from doing wrong is based on a misunderstanding of neuro-anatomy. All behaviour is dictated by the brain, but the brain is formed in interaction with our environment," he added.
Fleming is also concerned that the new research into maternal neurons could be used to argue diminished responsibility for those who abuse their children.
But Kinsley disagrees, saying: "We are all a slave to our brain function. An abusive mother has something malfunctioning in the brain so, in that respect, her behavior is beyond her control." When it comes to studying the brain, questions of "bad" and "good" need to be replaced with notions of "broken" and "fixed", he said.
"But it's not a question of whether we excuse a certain behaviour. The aim of our research is to identify brain malfunctions so we can work towards fixing them." (ANI)