From here to paternity: neural correlates of the onset of paternal behavior in California mice (Peromyscus californicus)

Horm Behav. 2009 Aug;56(2):220-31. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2009.05.001. Epub 2009 May 9.


In a minority of mammalian species, including humans, fathers play a significant role in infant care. Compared to maternal behavior, the neural and hormonal bases of paternal care are poorly understood. We analyzed behavioral, neuronal and neuropeptide responses towards unfamiliar pups in biparental California mice, comparing males housed with another male ("virgin males") or with a female before ("paired males") or after ("new fathers") the birth of their first litter. New fathers approached pups more rapidly and spent more time engaging in paternal behavior than virgin males. In each cage housing two virgin males, one was spontaneously paternal and one was not. New fathers and paired males spent more time sniffing and touching a wire mesh ball containing a newborn pup than virgin males. Only new fathers showed significantly increased Fos-like immunoreactivity in the medial preoptic nucleus (MPO) following exposure to a pup-containing ball, as compared to an empty ball. Moreover, Fos-LIR in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (STMV and STMPM) and caudal dorsal raphe nucleus (DRC) was increased in new fathers, independent of test condition. No differences were found among the groups in Fos-LIR in oxytocinergic or vasopressinergic neurons. These results suggest that sexual and paternal experiences facilitate paternal behavior, but other cues play a role as well. Paternal experience increases Fos-LIR induced by distal pup cues in the MPO, but not in oxytocin and vasopressin neurons. Fatherhood also appears to alter neurotransmission in the BNST and DRC, regions implicated in emotionality and stress-responsiveness.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Female
  • Housing, Animal
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Male
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Oxytocin / metabolism
  • Paternal Behavior*
  • Peromyscus
  • Preoptic Area / physiology*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos / metabolism
  • Raphe Nuclei / physiology*
  • Septal Nuclei / physiology*
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Social Behavior
  • Time Factors
  • Vasopressins / metabolism


  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos
  • Vasopressins
  • Oxytocin