New evidence from the US has shown that human and animal parenting share many nervous system mechanisms.
Yerkes National researchers Dr Larry Young and Dr James Rilling suggest that better understanding this biology could lead to improved social development, benefitting generations of humans and animals to come.
In their study, Dr Young and Dr Rilling reviewed the biological mechanisms governing a shift in mammals' parental motivation that begins with aversion and transforms into irresistible attraction after giving birth.
They say the same molecules that prepare the uterus for pregnancy, stimulate milk production and initiate labor also activate specific neural pathways to motivate parents to nurture, bond with and protect their offspring.
Dr Young said: "We have learned a tremendous amount about the specific hormonal and brain mechanisms regulating parental behaviour and how parental nurturing influences the development of the offspring brain by using animal models, and many of these same mechanisms influence human parenting behaviour as well.
"With this comprehensive review, we can see nervous system correlations across species that result in positive and negative parental care. This information is critical to further studying social development in order to facilitate positive parental behaviors that will benefit generations to come."
The researchers divided their review into nine categories, including neural correlates of human parental care, two specific to parenting and oxytocin, two focused specifically on paternal caregiving by fathers and two related to the effect of parenting on social development.
Examples within these categories include:
- Frustration inconsolable infant crying induces is a risk factor for infant abuse
- The importance of emotion regulation for sensitive parenting
- Oxytocin affects maternal motivation and paternal behaviors essential for nurturing, bonding and defending the offspring
- Testosterone may interfere with parenting effort
- Variation in parental nurturing can affect brain development affecting future social behaviors.
Rilling, who is a Yerkes researcher and an associate professor in Emory's Department of Anthropology, adds, "The human brain has mechanisms in place to support parent-child bonding, and when functioning properly, these mechanisms facilitate the development of secure attachment and sound mental health that is transmitted across generations."
To read the full study go to http://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6198/771