In the period before and after parturition, i.e., in pregnancy and lactation, a variety of neuroendocrine alterations occur that are accompanied by marked behavioral changes, including emotional responsiveness to external challenging situations. On the one hand, activation of neuroendocrine systems (oxytocin, prolactin) ensures reproduction-related physiological processes, but in a synergistic manner also ensures accompanying behaviors necessary for the survival of the offspring. On the other hand, there is a dramatic reduction in the responsiveness of neuroendocrine systems to stimuli not relevant for reproduction, such as the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis responses to physical or emotional stimuli in both pregnant and lactating rats. With CRH being the main regulator of the HPA axis, downregulation of the brain CRH system may result in various behavioral, in particular emotional, adaptations of the maternal organisms, including changes in anxiety-related behavior. In support of this, the lactating rat becomes less emotionally responsive to novel situations, demonstrating reduced anxiety, and shows a higher degree of aggressive behavior in the test for agonistic behavior as well as in the maternal defense test. These changes in emotionality are independent of the innate (pre-lactation) level of anxiety and are seen in both rats bred for high as well as low levels of anxiety. Both brain oxytocin and prolactin, highly activated at this time, play a significant role in these behavioral and possibly also neuroendocrine adaptations in the peripartum period.
Copyright 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.