Scientists have found a way to manipulate the brain in order to control maternal behaviour in female mice while reducing aggression in male mice. The majority of female mammals are programmed to care for their offspring after birth, while males often breed with several partners and play only a small part, if any, in parenting the offspring once the mating is over. However, up until now, researchers have been unable to pinpoint where these differences between males and females are located in the brain, or how they trigger this kind of behaviour.
However, new research by the Weizmann Institute’s Neurobiology Department is now able to offer some insight by showing that the same network of brain cells operates differently depending on sex. Using mice, the researchers showed that female mice, even if they’d never produced offspring, act in a ‘maternal’ way. They’ll look after pups and spend time grooming them, a tendency which increases once they become mothers themselves. In contrast, male mice are generally aggressive and territorial, ignoring or attacking strange pups. However, they do show parental tendencies after mating with a female, although this is just for a short period of time.
Scientists to believe that these particular neurons may be the drivers for parental care in females
To investigate these tendencies, the researchers studied a small structure in the hypothalamus called the anterovental preventriclur nucleus. This structure is larger in females than males, and contains dopamine producing neurons. The researchers found that mothers exhibited a larger number of these neurons than either males, or females that hadn’t yet had offspring. This led the scientists to believe that these particular neurons may be the drivers for parental care in females, while serving a different function in male mice.
The team found that by elevating the level of protein in these neurons, they could trigger maternal actions in female mice, while decreasing the number of neurons lowered the levels of oxytocin and resulted in a lowering of maternal instinct. When the scientists elevated the protein levels in the neurons of male mice they saw no changes in their paternal behaviours, however there was a significant decrease in aggression levels towards unfamiliar pups and adult males. By decreasing the number of neurons, they saw an increase in the males’ aggression in general.
These findings offer an insight into the differences in the way that male and female brains function in relation to conventional gender-related activities, and could ultimately help us to further our understanding of gender differences.
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