Numerous studies have documented prolactin regulation of a variety of brain functions, including maternal behavior, regulation of oxytocin neurons, regulation of feeding and appetite, suppression of ACTH secretion in response to stress, and suppression of fertility. We have observed marked changes in expression of prolactin receptors in specific hypothalamic nuclei during pregnancy and lactation. This has important implications for neuronal functions regulated by prolactin. In light of the high circulating levels of prolactin during pregnancy and lactation and the increased expression of prolactin receptors in the hypothalamus, many of these functions may be enhanced or exaggerated in the maternal brain. The adaptations of the maternal brain allow the female to exhibit the appropriate behavior to feed and nurture her offspring, to adjust to the nutritional and metabolic demands of milk production, and to maintain appropriate hormone secretion to allow milk synthesis, secretion, and ejection. This review aims to summarize the evidence that prolactin plays a key role in regulating hypothalamic function during lactation and to discuss the hypothesis that the overall role of prolactin is to organize and coordinate this wide range of behavioral and neuroendocrine adaptations during pregnancy and lactation.
Copyright 2001 Academic Press.