A new study has found that neural circuits in the brain may play a role in determining how a parent will take care of their children – at least, if you’re a mouse.
Researchers activated different portions of neurons in an area of the brain and found that different subsets caused the mice to groom, interact and engage in other behaviors with their pups.
It’s unclear whether the same circuit exists in other mammals, but the scientists say it still serves as an interesting case study for humans.
The study was published Thursday in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Harvard University specifically looked at a small cluster of neurons in the media preoptic area (MPOA) of the brain.
These neurons, which control everything from hunger and thirst to sex drive, are organized in subpopulations that link out to different areas of the brain.
From there, the scientists worked to determine which subpopulations were activated when a mouse was carrying out different parenting tasks, ranging from grooming to feeding.
They found that all MPOA neurons lit up when mice were parenting, but by activating certain subpopulations, it would trigger specific behaviors.
As a result, they reasoned that different subpopulations of neurons were responsible for different parenting tasks.
For example, they found that activating one portion of neurons caused both male and female mice to groom their pups.
Another subset of neurons was found to ‘influence the motivation to interact with infants,’ the researchers said.
Meanwhile, Johannes Kohl, lead of author of the study, stimulated a subpopulation of neurons and found that it could suppress social behaviors that aren’t tied to parenting.
‘Kohl unexpectedly observed that this manipulation suppressed interactions with adult mice in both males and females, therefore indicating that this pool might indirectly promote parenting by suppressing non-parental social behaviors,’ the American Association for the Advancement of Science noted.
The scientists say the study provides an in-depth look at what parts of the brain power many of the most important parenting skills.
‘This research is significant because it sheds light on the brain circuits that shape such important traits like parenting behavior,’ said Peter Stern, a senior editor at Science, who was not involved in the study.
Kohl added that, while ‘it is too early to know whether these findings are directly applicable to humans -where behavior is considerably more complex and subject to many additional social or cultural influences, for example,’ the study uncovered a great deal about how social behaviors are wired into the brain.
Following the study, Kohl said he hopes to examine how things like ‘stress, sleep or hunger affect these circuits, and whether other social behaviors rely on neural circuits that are similar in form and function to the ones identified for parenting.’