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Regina Marie Sullivan

Nathan Kline Institute, Child Study Center, New York University School of Medicine
Maternal Control of the Infant Brain: Lessons from an Animal Model
Presentation Abstract :

We have known for decades that the quality of parental care of infants has enduring effects on brain circuits.  While mechanisms remain elusive, these enduring effects are correlated with ubiquitous changes in gene regulation, epigenetics, myriad neurotransmitters/hormone and anatomy. Less is known about the immediate effects parental care quality has on neural processing. We focus on attachment quality and social buffering of the offspring’s stress response by the caregiver, a process clearly documented in humans and animal models.  While social buffering is ubiquitous across development in myriad species, we know little about its supporting neurobiology. Here we provide three examples of how the quality of attachment influences brain functioning and social buffering to produce profound changes in pup’s immediate behavior. First, we present data illustrating how mother’s social buffering of pups’ stress response can alter the offspring’s brain and learning about trauma.  Specifically, during odor-shock conditioning, pups readily learn to fear this odor using the amygdala.  However, with maternal presence, this amygdala-dependent fear learning is blocked through social buffering of the pup’s stress response.  Second, we show how pups’ social referencing of the mother’s fear response overrides social buffering to permit pup amygdala-dependent fear learning. Third, we show how maternal control over the pup’s brain is not always dependent upon manipulation of pups’ stress response.  Using LFP, we show that the mother’s presence increases pups’ cortical synchronization, although maternal behaviors (milk ejection, grooming) increases desynchronization, due to the pups noradrenergic system.  Overall, maternal control of the offspring’s brain decreases as pups approach independence.  


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