The Brain’s On and Off Switch for Good Parenting

From an evolutionary perspective, the goal of any organism is to pass genetic material into future generations. We’re “wired” for procreation, but until now, what that exactly that wiring looks like has been opaque. Last week, Harvard biologist Catherine Dulac won the Breakthrough Prize for discovering the neural circuits that drive parenting behavior.

For the first time, we are able to deconstruct mechanisms in our brains that orchestrate parental behavior. Studying mice, Dulac and her team discovered over 20 distinct parts of the brain integrated in this circuitry. These distinct groups of cells in the parenting-control hubs trigger all sorts of changes in the brain. Beyond the hormonal changes you might aspect, the brain also changes circuits associated with motivation and behavior.

From this research, we can begin to understand things like biological differences between male and female brains in relation to parenting, aggression, and social relationships.

Dulac found that all female mice exhibited maternal behaviors, regardless of is they are themselves parents. Male mice, however, only exhibit parenting instincts unless they have recently mated. Between the time of mating until after potential offspring would be born (for mice, this is about 3 weeks), males lose their aggression toward babies and instead spend their time building nests and grooming the pups.

Dulac discovered a signaling molecule called galanin was found in all of the brain areas changed when a mouse became a parent. Galanin, interestingly, is dedicated to motor control. And, when Dulac’s team activated these galanin-producing neurons, mice increased their behaviors of caring for pups. Even virgin male mice began grooming baby mice. The galanin neurons also triggered parents to focus on their offspring more and pay less attention to other adult mice.

Fascinatingly, Dulac’s team concluded, they “found no dramatic difference in the wiring of parenting circuitry between males and females.” The same alterations in circuitry produce similar behavioral outcomes, regardless of sex.

Where is this research going? Evolutionarily and anecdotally, parenting requires huge efforts and costs. Parents must feed, educate, and protect their children, which requires constant resource investment and attention.

And yet, parenting is rewarding and good parenting promotes the survival and well-being of offspring. As such, learning more about the complex circuitry responsible for producing parenting behaviors is critical to providing insight into what drives us to be attentive parents.

Continued research in this field may help us become more effective parents, better prepare us for the changes parenting brings, and even combat the stress and anxiety of becoming a parent. We may build healthier relationships and interactions between parents and children.

Congratulations Dr. Dulac and thank you for this incredible contribution!

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