Neuronal mechanism involved in learning maternal behavior discovered
Summary: Female mice that have not been pregnant or given birth show activation in the anterior cingulate cortex when they acquire maternal behavior after exposure to pups. The findings reveal that through repeated exposure to pups, naïve female mice are able to learn maternal behaviors that resemble those of mothers after birth.
Source: Medical University of Vienna
Various conditions such as postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis can lead to a change in the mother’s behavior and disrupt the mother-child bonding process.
The research team conducted a study in which they were able to identify the neural circuits in the brain that are activated during the learning of maternal behavior.
The findings, published in The EMBO Journalcan serve as a basis for the development of therapeutic interventions.
In the course of their preclinical research, scientists led by Daniela Pollak from the Department of Neurophysiology and Neuropharmacology at the MedUni Vienna Center for Physiology and Pharmacology analyzed the behavior of mouse mothers towards their newborn pups.
While the neural processes involved in the development of maternal care behavior in postnatal female mice have been previously described, the current study addressed the question of which brain circuits are activated during the learning of care behavior in virgin, non-pregnant virgin female mice.
The researchers found the answer in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a region in the prefrontal lobe of the brain associated with, among other things, the recognition and evaluation of social processes and the development of emotional awareness.
A mouse model has shown that in females that have not been pregnant or parturient, the ACC is activated when they acquire maternal behavior after first contact with pups.
“Our observations showed that, through repeated experience with pups, virgin females are able to learn maternal behavior that fully resembles the behavior of mothers after giving birth,” explains project leader Pollak, reporting on his research.
The study found that during this learning process ACC activity is controlled by an excitatory feedback loop involving a specific group of neurons in the central brain region (thalamus).
Learning through repeated experience
The mother’s behavior is defined, among other things, by sensitivity and responsiveness to signals about the child’s needs. It is instinctively shown in almost all mammals and upon first contact with newborns immediately after birth.
In some species, such as rodents, even animals that have never given birth can display maternal behavior towards their newborns.
In this case, grooming behaviors, such as returning displaced chicks outside the nest back to the nest area, where they are warm and protected from predators, are acquired through repeated experience with the chicks.
We know, for example from observations of adoptive parents, that people can also learn parenting behavior. Various pathological conditions, such as postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis, can lead to changes in the mother’s behavior and disrupt the mother-child bonding process.
“By showing that maternal behavior can be acquired and by identifying the underlying neural circuits in the brain that control this acquisition, we create a potential basis for developing therapeutic options for these clinical situations,” says Pollak, emphasizing the translational relevance of the study’s results. , which were obtained in collaboration with Tibor Harkany from the Department of Molecular Neurosciences at the MedUni Vienna Center for Brain Research.
About this maternal behavior and neuroscience research news
Original Research: Open access.
“An additional prefrontal cortex-thalamus circuit shapes maternal behavior in naïve female mice” Micaela Glad et al. EMBO Journal
An additional prefrontal cortex-thalamus circuit shapes maternal behavior in naïve female mice
The ability to care for the young is innate and is readily displayed by females after giving birth to ensure the survival of the offspring. After exposure of the pup, virgin (nuptial) female rodents also develop parental behavior that is exhibited over time at levels equivalent to parental mothers.
Although maternal behavior in postpartum women and the associated neural circuits are well characterized, the neural mechanisms underlying the acquisition of maternal behavior without prior experience remain poorly understood.
Here, we show that the development of maternal behavior in response to first pup exposure in virgin females is initiated by activation of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). ACC activity depends on feedback excitation by Vglut2+/ Galanova+ neurons of the centrolateral nucleus of the thalamus (CL), whose activity is sufficient for the manifestation of parental behavior.
Accordingly, acute bidirectional hemogenetic manipulation of neuronal activity in the ACC facilitates or hinders the acquisition of maternal behavior, exclusively in virgins.
These results reveal the ACC-CL neurocircuitry as an accessory loop in virgin females for the initiation of maternal care after initial exposure to pups.
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