Mother’s touch supports pup’s brain development

A mother’s presence may have immediate and long-term effects on her child’s developing brain by modulating the serotonin system, suggests a study of rat moms and their pups published in eNeuro. The research provides a potential mechanism by which separating a child from his or her mother early in life could derail development.

By wirelessly recording the brain activity of rat pups during interaction with their mother, Catia Teixeira and colleagues provide evidence for a direct connection between maternal care and the neurotransmitter serotonin — two factors known to be crucially involved in brain development.

The researchers demonstrate that a mother’s presence in the nest increases activity in the pups’ prefrontal cortex, a slowly developing brain region rich in serotonin receptors. Blocking these receptors counteracted the effect while treating isolated pups with the selective-serotonin-reuptake-inhibitor fluoxetine increased prefrontal cortex activity similar to that observed in the mother’s presence.

These results implicate maternal contact and the serotonin system as important regulators of neuronal activity in the developing brain.