Parenting Skills Triggered by Hub of Neurons in the Brain

A hub of neurons in the brain could be in charge of parenting skills, from feeding to grooming. That's according to a study in mice.

Parenting is tough: It costs time, money and energy and has little obvious immediate reward, the author of an essay published in the American Association for the Advancement of Science journal wrote. The international team of neuroscientists behind the paper sought to unpick the brain mechanisms that keep parents going.

The paper follows work that previously revealed a segment of the hypothalamus called the medial preoptic area (MPOA) plays an important role in helping moms and dads take care of their children. More specifically, the scientists investigated a cluster of around 10,000 neurons in the region that expresses the neuropeptide Galanin, also known as MPOAGal.

These neurons make up subpopulations that link out to different parts of the brain, while receiving information from all 20 areas of the organ. Each subpopulation is thought to control certain parenting behaviors.

Research involving mice has shed light on the neurological basis of parenting behavior. Getty Images

The researchers wanted to uncover how this handful of neurons interact with the 100 million that make up a mouse's brain, and which ones lit up when a mouse was, for instance, feeding or grooming.

Brain imaging revealed all MPOAGal neurons sparked up when mice were parenting. And by activating different subpopulations, the neuroscientists triggered different behaviors in the mice. This suggested different pools of neurons were in charge of different parenting skills.

Stimulating one spot saw both male and female parents groom pups more. Lighting up another pool seemed to motivate parents to interact with their pups, while another dampened social behaviors not involved with parenting.

Dr. Peter Stern, a senior editor at the journal Science who was not involved in the research, commented, "This research is significant because it sheds light on the brain circuits that shape such important traits like parenting behavior."

Several questions remain, the author wrote, including whether these pools work together and how.

And as the study was carried out in mice, it offers an interesting insight into the brains of moms and dads, but doesn't directly translate to humans.

Dr. Johannes Kohl, essay author and postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour in the U.K., won a prize for his essay on the topic. Kohl commented, "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."

But the results are an important step forward in illuminating how the brain control socials behavior, he said.

If this work can be replicated in humans, it could help to tackle mental illnesses that arise around parenthood, including postpartum depression.

Moving forward, Kohl hopes his research will be built on to "how factors such as 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."

The research follows a separate study in mice that warned that advances in gene-editing techniques could consign fathers to history.

Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences created healthy mouse babies using DNA from two mothers. The resulting study was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.