Oxytocin Receptor Neurons Offer Clue To Maternal Instinct

A group of cells that are activated by oxytocin in one area of female mouse brains that are not present in the same area in male mouse brains has been uncovered by a biologist and his students at Louisiana State University.

“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 this study.

Inducing Maternal Behavior?

Oxytocin is widely referred to as the love hormone and plays an important role in the regulation of social and maternal behavior. In recent years, the oxytocin system in the brain has received tremendous attention as key to new treatments for many mental health disorders, such as anxiety, autism spectrum disorders and postpartum depression.

The oxytocin receptor cells are present in the brain area thought to be involved in the regulation of maternal behavior. Moreover, the expression of oxytocin receptors in these cells are only present when estrogen is also present.

The sexually dimorphic distribution of OXTR-Venus cells in the AVPV

The sexually dimorphic distribution of OXTR-Venus cells in the AVPV
Credit: Kaustubh Sharma, et al. CC-BY

These imply that these cells are involved in inducing maternal behavior. In addition, it confirms what many recent human studies have shown: there is a connection between an altered expression of oxytocin receptors and postpartum depression.

Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression contributes to poor maternal health and has negative effects on a child’s development. A number of studies have found that children of depressed mothers are at risk for a wide range of cognitive, emotional, behavioral and medical problems.

Therefore, postpartum depression is a major public health concern that has significant adverse effects on both mother and child. About 10 to 20 percent of women experience postpartum depression after childbirth.

This new discovery that occurred at LSU opens doors to potential new treatments and drugs for postpartum depression targeting oxytocin receptor expressing neurons.

“I think our discovery could be universal to all mammals that exhibit maternal behavior, including humans,”

Teruyama said.

Sharma K, LeBlanc R, Haque M, Nishimori K, Reid MM, Teruyama R (2019)
Sexually dimorphic oxytocin receptor-expressing neurons in the preoptic area of the mouse brain
PLoS ONE 14(7): e0219784. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0219784

Top Image: Kaustubh Sharma, et al. CC-BY