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J Neurosci. 1997 May 1;17(9):3364-78.

Role of the midbrain periaqueductal gray in maternal nurturance and aggression: c-fos and electrolytic lesion studies in lactating rats.

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Department of Psychology, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08903, USA.


the upright, crouched, or kyphotic, nursing posture of lactating rats is dependent on suckling stimulation from pups. Because of the neuroanatomical connections of the periaqueductal gray (PAG) and its sensorimotor integration of the analogous lordosis posture displayed by sexually receptive female rats, the possible role of the PAG in kyphosis was investigated using c-fos immunocytochemistry and electrolytic lesions. Lactating rats interacting with and nursing a litter of suckling pups showed greater Fos-immunoreactive nuclei in the lateral and ventrolateral caudal PAG (cPAGl,vl) compared with dams receiving nonsuckling somatosensory, distal, or no stimulation from pups. In contrast, this pattern was not evident in the rostral PAG, where the highest Fos levels occurred in nonsuckled dams, or in five other brainstem sites with either no group differences (peripenduncular, dorsal raphe, and pontine nuclei) or negligible Fos (ventral tegmental area, spinal trigeminal nuclei). After bilateral electrolytic lesions of the cPAGl,vl during gestation or on day 7 postpartum, active maternal behaviors, such as retrieval and licking of pups, and total nursing time were essentially normal. Kyphotic nursing, however, was reduced by 85%, nursing in prone and supine postures increased substantially, and 24 hr litter weight gains were reduced, particularly early in lactation (by 26%). Furthermore, lesioned rats attacked a strange male twice as often as controls did, which is suggestive of reduced fearfulness. These results extend the known roles of the PAG in reproductive and defensive behaviors to the postural control of suckling-induced kyphotic nursing and the modulation of maternal aggression.

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