The general focus of research in the lab is to understand the neurobiology of parental and other social behaviors in mammals. Non-lactating females of most species do not readily show nurturant responses to infants, although a dramatic change in responding occurs in females’ behavior after they are pregnant and their infants are born. One area of our research is devoted to understanding how the hormones of pregnancy and lactation alter neurochemistry in the rat brain to promote nurturant behaviors towards pups. We focus on how release of the neurotransmitter dopamine within the preoptic area, a site important for some maternal behaviors, influences how mothers respond to their pups. To address this question, we have measured dopaminergic activity in the preoptic area across reproductive states, neuroanatomically traced the dopaminergic projections to the preoptic area, and pharmacologically manipulated dopaminergic activity in the preoptic area and determined the effects on maternal behavior.
A second area of research in the lab is devoted to the understanding of how emotional behaviors are regulated during the postpartum period. Many rodents show reduced anxiety after birth of the offspring, which may be important for their ability to act maternally towards the potentially anxiety-provoking pups. We are interested in how reproductive state and physical contact with pups modulates neurochemistry in a way that affects maternal emotionality. We are particularly interested in contributions of norepinephrine and GABA. This question is addressed by determining the effects of site-specific pharmacological manipulations on females’ anxiety behaviors, using autoradiography to visualize how reproductive state and infant contact influences neurotransmitter receptor binding, and we will soon be measuring central norepinephrine release in females from different reproductive states and pup-deprivation conditions.
Lastly, we are interested in how sex differences in the prairie vole brain contribute to sex differences or similarities in their biparental and other monogamous behaviors. We have found a species-specific and sexually dimorphic dopamine system in the prairie vole extended amygdala, and are investigating how this contribute to the complex social behaviors displayed by members of this species. We are interested in the sensitivity of these dopamine cells to gonadal hormones released during different reproductive states, how activity of these cells is acutely affected by social interactions, and to where these cells project in the brain.
Adequate and appropriate parental responding is critical for the normal development, if not survival, of offspring. Our work on understanding the parental brain, therefore, has clear implications for non-human development as well as for human welfare.
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