Maternal behavior is dependent on estrogen receptor-alpha (ERα; Esr1) and oxytocin receptor (OTR) signaling in the medial preoptic area (MPOA) of the hypothalamus, as well as dopamine signaling from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to forebrain regions. Previous studies in rats indicate that low levels of maternal care, particularly licking/grooming (LG), lead to reduced levels of MPOA ERα and VTA dopamine neurons in female offspring and predict lower levels of postpartum maternal behavior by these offspring. The aim of this study was to determine the functional impact on maternal behavior of neonatal manipulation of ERα in females that had experienced low versus high levels of postnatal maternal LG. Adenovirus expressing ESR1 was targeted to the MPOA in female pups from low and high LG litters on postnatal day 2-3. Overexpression of ESR1 in low LG offspring elevated the level of ERα-immunoreactive cells in the MPOA and of tyrosine hydroxylase cells in the VTA to that observed in high LG females. Amongst juvenile female low LG offspring, ESR1 overexpression also decreased the latency to engage in maternal behavior toward donor pups. These results show that virally mediated expression of ESR1 in the neonatal rat hypothalamus results in lasting changes in ESR1 expression through the juvenile period, and can "rescue" hormone receptor levels and behavior of offspring reared by low LG dams, potentially mediated by downstream alterations within reward circuitry. Thus, the transmission of maternal behavior from one generation to the next can be augmented by neonatal ERα in the MPOA.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
- Developmental Neuroscience
- Estrogen receptor-alpha
- Medial preoptic area
- Ventral tegmental area
- maternal care