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What Makes a Mother Risk Her Life to Protect Her Kids?

Summary: A mother’s willingness to sacrifice their own lives to protect their children depends upon the action of oxytocin on neurons in the amygdala, a new study reports.

Source: Champalimaud Center for the Unknown.

From birds to mammals, from fish to reptiles, the immediate reaction to an impending threat to the animal itself is usually to flee or to stop moving in an attempt to go unnoticed. However, when parents feel threatened in the presence of their young, their reaction is completely different: they seek to protect them. What happens in the brains of the parents for them to to be willing to sacrifice their own life in the interest of their offspring’s safety?

A team lead by neuroscientists from the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, in Lisbon, Portugal, has discovered that this radical change in the parents’ behavior (from self-defense to defending their young) depends on the action of the so-called “love hormone”, oxytocin, on the neurons of the amygdala, a specific brain structure known for its crucial role in the processing of emotional reactions. Their results have been published in the journal eLife.

Oxytocin is responsible for the bonding between mothers and their young, and within couples. Its effects are not well understood; oxytocin probably has many functions, therefore making its difficult.

Experts do know, however, that its release into the amygdala is able to inhibit that basic self-defense reaction they call freezing, when the animal ceases to move.

Nonetheless, the potential usefulness of this inhibition had not been elucidated. The new study, which was done on female rats that had recently given birth, solves this mystery by bridging the gap between these two phenomena.

“We put both things together”, says Marta Moita, who led the study. “We developed a new experiment that allows us to study the mother’s defensive behavior either in the presence or the absence of her pups, while at the same time testing whether oxytocin’s action in the amygdala is required for the regulation of this behavior.”

Since oxytocin acts on many parts of the brain, affecting many behaviors, it is usually difficult to interpret the results when manipulating this hormone. But in the new experiments, says Marta Moita, “we manipulated a circuit where we know precisely how oxytocin leads to inhibition of freezing. So we are very sure of our interpretation of the behavioral results.”

The experiments consisted in conditioning the mother rats, in the absence of their pups, to associate a peppermint scent with the imminence of an innocuous electric shock. After training, these female rats perceived the odor as a threat and froze accordingly.

Priority swap

Once the training was over, the team started by showing that, in the pups’ presence, the mothers didn’t freeze, as they had when they were alone. On the contrary, they now tried to protect their offspring from the peppermint odor by attacking the tube where the odor was coming from, or piling up bits of material from the nest to block the tube – or, if the pups were a little older, by nursing them, grooming them and generally keeping them in close contact with themselves.

However, when the scientists then blocked oxytocin activity in the mothers’ amygdalas, the mothers started to freeze as soon as they perceived the threat, independently of the age of the pups – forgetting, so to speak, their maternal “duties”.

Image shows a cartoon of a cat and mice.

A rat mum cuddles her pups when a threat looms. NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Shira Lottem/ Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown.

This work provides a new experimental framework “to study the signals transmitted by the pups that make their mother’s brain release oxytocin into the amygdala in the face of danger”, triggering the defensive strategy to protect their offspring, says Marta Moita. “We know that chemical communication is very important, but we still haven’t identified the sensory stimuli that activate oxytocin”, she adds.

Another result worthy of note was the fact that the older pups whose mother, instead of tending to them, had responded to the threat by freezing (because oxytocin in her amygdala was inhibited), did not learn to recognize the peppermint odor as a threat. More specifically, when these pups were later placed by themselves in a box, and exposed to the same odor, they did not freeze. On the other hand, the pups whose mothers had duly cuddled them did freeze when confronted with the same situation. A pheromone emitted by the caring mother might be at the root of this type of learning by the older pups, Marta Moita speculates.

“In all likelihood”, she concludes, “similar mechanisms may be at play in us humans.”

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: This work was supported by Fundação Champalimaud, European Research Council, National Institutes of Health, Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia.

Source: Maria Joao Soares – Champalimaud Center for the Unknown
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Shira Lottem/ Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Freezing suppression by oxytocin in central amygdala allows alternate defensive behaviours and mother-pup interactions” by Elizabeth Rickenbacher, Rosemarie E Perry, Regina M Sullivan, and Marta A Moita in eLife. Published online June 13 2017 doi:10.7554/eLife.24080

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
Champalimaud Center for the Unknown “What Makes a Mother Risk Her Life to Protect Her Kids?.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 13 June 2017.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/maternal-protection-6897/>.
Champalimaud Center for the Unknown (2017, June 13). What Makes a Mother Risk Her Life to Protect Her Kids?. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved June 13, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/maternal-protection-6897/
Champalimaud Center for the Unknown “What Makes a Mother Risk Her Life to Protect Her Kids?.” http://neurosciencenews.com/maternal-protection-6897/ (accessed June 13, 2017).

Abstract

Freezing suppression by oxytocin in central amygdala allows alternate defensive behaviours and mother-pup interactions

When animals and their offspring are threatened, parents switch from self-defense to offspring protection. How self-defense is suppressed remains elusive. We postulated that suppression of the self-defense response, freezing, is gated via oxytocin acting in the centro-lateral amygdala (CeL). We found that rat dams conditioned to fear an odor, froze when tested alone, whereas if pups were present, they remained in close contact with them or targeted the threat. Furthermore, blocking oxytocin signaling in the CeL prevented the suppression of maternal freezing. Finally, pups exposed to the odor in the presence of the conditioned dam later froze when re-exposed alone. However, if oxytocin signaling in the dam had been blocked, pups failed to learn. This study provides a functional role for the well-described action of oxytocin in the central amygdala, and demonstrates that self-defense suppression allows for active pup protection and mother-pup interactions crucial for pup threat learning.

“Freezing suppression by oxytocin in central amygdala allows alternate defensive behaviours and mother-pup interactions” by Elizabeth Rickenbacher, Rosemarie E Perry, Regina M Sullivan, and Marta A Moita in eLife. Published online June 13 2017 doi:10.7554/eLife.24080

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