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Neural pathway to parenthood
Date:5/15/2014

Good news for Dads: Harvard researchers say the key to being a better parent is literally all in your head.

In a study in mice, Higgins Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Howard Hughes Investigator Catherine Dulac have pinpointed galanin neurons in the brain's medial preoptic area (MPOA), that appear to regulate parental behavior. If similar neurons are at work in humans, it could offer clues to the treatment of conditions like post-partum depression. The study is described in a May 15 paper published in Nature.

"If you look across different animal species, there are some species in which the father contributes to caring for the young sometimes the work is divided equally, sometimes the father does most of the work and there are species in which the father does nothing," Dulac said. "The essential question is where is that variability coming from? We may be tempted to say that the mom has the neurons required to engage in parental behavior, and dads don't this paper shows that's wrong."

It's long been known, Dulac said, that mice have highly stereotypical reactions to pups. Among sexually-experienced mice, both males and females care for pups by building nests, grooming and huddling with pups. Virgin females exhibit the same maternal behavior, while virgin males typically attack and kill pups.

Using genetic tools, graduate student Herbert Wu in collaboration with other researchers in Dulac's lab were able to activate galanin neurons in virgin males, and the results were startling.

Rather than attacking pups, the males immediately began to groom the pups. Other tests which killed the neurons resulted in parents that either ignored the pups altogether, or virgin females who behaved like males, and attacked the pups.

Dulac and colleagues began exploring the roots of parenting behavior after making an unusual observation in the lab female mice which lacked a functioning vomeronasal
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Contact: Peter Reuell
preuell@fas.harvard.edu
617-496-8070
Harvard University
Source:Eurekalert

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