In all species of living beings in the animal kingdom, the care of young ones by the females is common. The mother cares and nurtures by licking the babies after their birth, feeding them, teaching them how to hunt and eat. The same thing applies to humans as well. Maternal instinct is a phenomenon which causes a response reflex to an infant stimuli. This makes a healthy mother’s brain to respond more strongly. For example, when a baby cries whether due to hunger or discomfort, the mother will forget everything else and rush to her child’s aid.
In 1979, a pharmacological paper was published which suggested the role of oxytocin in triggering maternal instinct. Along with its roles in pregnancy, oxytocin known as the love hormone aids in our social behavior. Now 40 years later, a group of researchers at the Louisiana State University have discovered a group of cells which are activated by oxytocin in an area of the brain of female mouse which aren’t present in the brain of a male mouse. It was observed that there are oxytocin receptor cells in the area of the brain responsible for maternal behavior. It was also observed that estrogen, which is the primary female sex hormone must also be present for the expression of the receptor cells.
“Many researchers have attempted to investigate the difference between the oxytocin system in females versus males, but no one has successfully found conclusive evidence until now. Our discovery was a big surprise,” said Ryoichi Teruyama, LSU Department of Biological Sciences associate professor, who led the study.
Ryan LeBlanc, an undergraduate at LSU was given the task of mapping the location of thousands of oxytocin receptor cells which took more than a month. This discovery also gives hope of treatment for mothers suffering from postpartum depression.
This type of depression occurs in some women which is caused by an abnormal expression of the oxytocin receptors. It is a complication which can start during pregnancy and can last up to a year after childbirth. The signs and symptoms can be mild to severe involving mood swings, crying, inability to take care of oneself and the child, and restlessness.
Now with the help of this research, new treatment can be used to help mothers suffering from postpartum depression by targeting the abnormal oxytocin receptor cells.