NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. First, he discovered a gene that controls innate fear in animals. Now Rutgers geneticist Gleb Shumyatsky has shown that the same gene promotes "helicopter mom" behavior in mice. The gene, known as stathmin or oncoprotein 18, motivates female animals to protect newborn pups and interact cautiously with unknown peers.
This "fear gene" is highly concentrated in the amygdala, a key region of the brain that deals with fear and anxiety. Shumyatsky's newest finding could enhance our understanding of human anxiety, including partpartum depression and borderline personality disorders.
Shumyatsky is an assistant professor of genetics in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
Working with female mice genetically engineered to have an inactive stathmin gene, Shumyatsky demonstrated that these mutant mice were slow to retrieve pups placed outside the nest at corners of the cage. Females with normally active stathmin, however, were quick to bring similarly dispersed pups back to the nest. In another experiment, knockout mice chose to rebuild nests in more vulnerable open spaces instead of in safe corners, where normal mice typically build nests.
The abnormal behavior, concludes Shumyatsky, is based on the mouse's lack of fear in this case, fear for the safety of pups in her care. Retrieving wayward pups is a behavior motivated by innate fear of attack by predators, a likely outcome for wild pups that stray from the relative safety of a nest.
"The human analog might be parents on a playground with their children when it starts to thunder," said Shumyatsky. "The typical parental behavior would be to gather their children and seek shelter. Parents who behave as these mice do would say, 'so they get a little wet, what's the problem'. That's definitely not the kind of helicopter parenting that newborn mice need to survive, and by extension, the species needs to survive."'/>"/>
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