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Neuroscience. 1998 Jan;82(1):267-81.

Forebrain expression of c-fos due to active maternal behaviour in lactating rats.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08903, USA.


To reveal brain sites simultaneously active during the expression of maternal behaviour in lactating rats, we used immunocytochemical visualization of the nuclear protein product Fos of the immediate-early gene c-fos as a marker of neuronal activity. After a 48 h separation from their litter, day 7 postpartum dams received a 1 h period of physical interaction with pups either capable or incapable of suckling, inaccessible pups in a wire-mesh box, an empty box, or no stimulation. Physical interaction with pups elicited high levels of pronurturant maternal behaviour (retrieval, licking, mouthing), and suckling elicited nursing behaviour as well. Exposure to the box, with or without pups, elicited high levels of investigatory sniffing, self-grooming, and general activity. Distal stimulation from pups did not differentially activate Fos in any of 20 sites, including olfactory-processing structures such as the piriform cortex and medial amygdala. Physical interaction with pups, with or without suckling, elicited higher levels of Fos-immunoreactive nuclei than that of other conditions in numerous sites, including many previously implicated in maternal behaviour (medial preoptic nucleus, nucleus accumbens, lateral septum, lateral habenula, and the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis). Similar group patterns of Fos expression also occurred in sites not previously implicated in maternal behaviour (somatosensory cortex and paraventricular thalamic nucleus). Interaction with nonsuckling pups elicited the highest levels of Fos in the cortical amygdala, whereas suckling did not activate higher Fos than nonsuckling interaction in any site included in this report, including hypothalamic nuclei involved in lactation (paraventricular, supraoptic, and arcuate). There was little or no Fos in cingulate cortex, olfactory tubercle, medial septum, medial habenula, or ventromedial hypothalamus. These data suggest that trigeminal stimuli received by lactating rats during the performance of pronurturant maternal behaviour promote cellular activity resulting in neuronal expression of c-fos in many forebrain sites including the medial preoptic nucleus, several sites connected with it that are part of the mesotelencephalic dopamine system, and in the somatosensory cortex. In contrast, in these forebrain sites suckling does not elicit greater levels of Fos than that seen in nonsuckled rats and distal stimuli from pups are ineffective in increasing Fos levels compared with non-stimulated controls.

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