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Behav Brain Res. 2010 Jun 19;209(2):226-33. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2010.01.048. Epub 2010 Feb 6.

The periaqueductal gray and its potential role in maternal behavior inhibition in response to predatory threats.

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Department of Pathology, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.


Animals faced with conflicting cues, such as predatory threat and a given rewarding stimulus, must make rapid decisions to engage in defensive versus other appetitive behaviors. The brain mechanisms mediating such responses are poorly understood. However, the periaqueductal gray (PAG) seems particularly suitable for accomplishing this task. The PAG is thought to have, at least, two distinct general roles on the organization of motivated responses, i.e., one on the execution of defensive and reproductive behaviors, and the other on the motivational drive underlying adaptive responses. We have presently examined how the PAG would be involved in mediating the behavioral choice between mutually incompatible behaviors, such as reproduction or defense, when dams are exposed to pups and cat odor. First, we established the behavioral protocol and observed that lactating rats, simultaneously exposed to pups and cat odor, inhibited maternal behavior and expressed clear defensive responses. We have further revealed that cat odor exposure up-regulated Fos expression in the dorsal PAG, and that NMDA cytotoxic lesions therein were able to restore maternal responses, and, at the same time, block defensive responsiveness to cat odor. Potential paths mediating the dorsal PAG influences on the inhibition of appetitive (i.e., retrieving behavior) and consummatory (i.e., nursing) maternal responses are discussed. Overall, we were able to confirm the dual role of the PAG, where, in the present case, the dorsal PAG, apart from organizing defensive responses, also appears to account for the behavioral inhibition of non-defensive responses.

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