News Release

“Experienced” mouse mothers tutor other females to parent, helped by hormone oxytocin

The study provides scientific evidence for the benefits of parenting classes in humans, Rutgers researcher says

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Rutgers University

The best way to become a good mother just might be learning from an experienced one, if new research on female mice is any indication, according to a Rutgers researcher who filmed thousands of hours of interaction between female mice and found that mouse mothers are outstanding tutors.

“We discovered never-before-seen behavior in which new mouse mothers would, without prompting, shepherd virgin female mice into the family’s nest with pups inside. Mothers also demonstrate to virgins how to take care of pups” said study co-author Ioana Carcea, an assistant professor in the department of pharmacology, physiology, and neuroscience at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School who led the study published in the journal Nature. “Essentially what mothers do is to train virgins how to become good pup caretakers. Initially virgins might be uninterested in pups, but after watching experienced mothers they willingly start behaving as parents would. The same might be true in human mothers. This provides scientific evidence for the benefits observed from parenting classes in humans or, intriguingly, from multigenerational households.”

In the study researchers at Rutgers and New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine filmed thousands of hours of female mice interacting with their newborns as well as with virgin mice. They analyzed simultaneous electrical recordings in a brain region known to produce oxytocin, a hormone that plays a role in female reproduction and parental behavior in both mice and humans. Oxytocin can shape maternal behaviors even before mice have pups of their own.

The researchers watched a mother mouse gather her pups into the family’s nest and train other female mice without pups to perform the same parenting task. This happened even when the mice viewed the interaction through a clear plastic window.

The research team built on its earlier studies of the so-called pleasure hormone showing that the release of oxytocin is essential not only for the onset of nursing but also the initiation of other maternal behaviors.

They also measured brain electrical activity in virgin mice during shepherding and later when they became mothers on their own. They found that both the sight and sound of crying pups moved outside of their nest stimulated oxytocin production in a specific region of the brain, the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus. When scientists block the same oxytocin-producing pathways, the virgin mice failed to learn how to take care of pups. 

Researchers say that they will continue their study by examining if the same tutoring relationship exists among father mice and virgin males.

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