The Parenting Switch

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Every time I walk down a busy Chicago street with my two young boys, my heart starts to race. As cars zoom by, my brain fills with images of a car veering into the sidewalk or of my two-year-old darting out into the street. My instincts tell me to shepherd the boys closer, to protect them against these imagined dangers.

I know…this isn’t rational thinking. But I wasn’t always such a nervous Nelly.

When I became a mom, I developed a whole new set of behaviors, including a preoccupation with whether there’s enough food in the house, a newfound fear of playground equipment, and a strong need to wipe all the dirt, boogers, and food off of my kids. It wasn’t something I had to think too much about. All of the sudden, I was nesting, nurturing, and worrying. How did that happen?

It’s long been known that hormones, such as oxytocin, prolactin, estradiol, and progesterone, help coordinate these types of parenting behaviors. But now, researchers have found another player that could very well act as a “parenting switch.”

In a recent study in the journal Nature, researchers at Harvard University found that a protein in the brain, called galanin, controls whether male and female mice care for baby mice, also called “pups.” For example, when galanin was selectively removed from a special region of the brain called the Medial Preoptic Area (MPOA), neither male nor female adult mice exhibited normal parental behaviors, such as grooming pups, building nests, or protectively guarding the babies. In fact, female mice lacking galanin ignored and even attacked the pups. They were negligent and often abusive parents. On the flipside, when the galanin neurons were stimulated and became more active, the adult mice spent significantly more time caring for the pups. They became super parents. Galanin, then, seemed to dictate how the adult mice acted towards the pups.

This idea of a “parenting switch” isn’t too far fetched. Researchers have previously shown that the brains of parents are just different from those of non-parents. In humans, parents exhibit heightened brain activity when viewing pictures of children or when hearing an infant cry. When the switch to parental thinking actually occurs is still unknown but from my own experience, I can tell you that when you hold your baby for the first time, things just feel different. Your perception of the world shifts and that baby becomes a MAJOR focus.

While these studies are still in their early days, it will be interesting to study galanin in human parental behavior. If I had to guess, galanin has some control of my nervousness while walking with my kids and might explain why my pregnant friends spend so much time preparing their homes for the new baby. It might even explain why a certain coworker (ahem) gushes so much about cuddling with her kitty. 

*Rebecca Daugherty is the Assistant Director of Science in Society and is, apparently, a slave to her nucleus accumbens.

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This publication in Nature on

This publication in Nature on galanin and the “parenting switch” confirms what many physicians observe on a regular basis.

As a physician who specializes in HIV, AIDS and infectious diseases, do allow me to furnish anecdotal evidence in support of this “parenting switch.” A young lady with high risk sexual behavior, prior to her pregnancy, had consistently ignored preventative measures I recommend to her such as safe sex, counseling, and medications like HIV PEP or post exposure prophylaxis after her usual “accidents” at the spur of the moment.

After her pregnancy, she discovered she was HIV positive by her gynecologist. The drastic change in her behavior and her compliance to zidovudine (in addition to other measures) – an antiretroviral medication given to HIV-infected mothers-to-be before and during labor – impressed all her doctors and carers. Zidovudine is known to reduce the risk of HIV transmission from mother to child by roughly two-thirds. Her knowledge of this fact, coupled with her desire to keep her unborn child HIV-free, empowered her with a new lease of life, an enhanced sense of personal responsibility, and a totally converted perspective of the world around her.

Many of my own patients would also testify how having a child changed their personal goals and mission in life!

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