MADISON - In mice, child neglect is a product of both nature and nurture, according to a new study.
Writing in the journal PLoS ONE on April 9, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison describe a strain of mice that exhibit unusually high rates of maternal neglect, with approximately one out of every five females failing to care for her offspring. By comparing the good mothers to their less attentive relatives, the group has found that negligent parenting seems to have both genetic and non-genetic influences, and may be linked to dysregulation of the brain signaling chemical dopamine.
As a possible model for human child neglect, these mice offer a valuable opportunity to investigate the biological and behavioral bases of naturally occurring maternal neglect, say UW-Madison zoology professor Stephen Gammie, who led the study, and co-author psychology professor Anthony Auger.
Good mouse mothers suckle, groom, and protect their pups, while their neglectful sisters may start out trying to care for a litter, but fail to follow through. "There seems to be a switch early on. The neglectful mice may nurse for a day or two after birth, but then the parental care ceases," Gammie says.
To separate the effects of genes and environment, the researchers set up a fostering study, in which pups born to previously nurturing mothers and previously neglectful mothers were switched immediately after birth.
Surprisingly, while nurturing moms attentively cared for foster pups born to other nurturing females, some became more neglectful when given foster pups born to a neglectful mother.
"In some cases the previously nurturing mothers would actively scatter the pups away from the nest, suggesting a negative cue from the pups or a lack of a positive cue," Gammie says. The result suggests that the offspring are somehow able to influence females' behavior and shows that maternal care can be affected by non-genet
|Contact: Stephen Gammie|
University of Wisconsin-Madison