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J Neuroendocrinol. 2011 Nov;23(11):1042-53. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2826.2011.02205.x.

Mother-young relationships in sheep: a model for a multidisciplinary approach of the study of attachment in mammals.

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  • 1INRA, UMR85 Physiologie de la Reproduction et des Comportements, F-37380 Nouzilly, France.


The onset of maternal responsiveness and the development of mother-young attachment in sheep are under the combined influence of hormonal and sensory stimulations. In the mother, the prepartum rise in oestrogen and vaginocervical stimulation caused by expulsion of the foetus act on the main olfactory system and on hypothalamic regions. This induces maternal care through the central release of oxytocin, modulated by opiates and corticotrophin-releasing hormone. In parallel, activation of the main olfactory network enables the learning of individual lamb odour and maternal attachment. In the neonate, the first suckling episodes and the concomitant activation of the cholecystokinin, opioids and oxytocin systems facilitate the development of a preference for the mother. Gastrointestinal signals activate the brain stem, the hypothalamus and the amygdala. Within 72 h of parturition, the mother-young attachment shifts from proximal to distal recognition based on visual and auditory cues after which vocal cues become more salient. Although olfaction remains a key element in the display of selective maternal nursing, maternal attachment relies on a multisensory mental image of the lamb. These findings support the view that sheep are amongst the most appropriate animal models for the study of maternal and filial attachment in mammals.

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