The non-genomic transmission of maternal behavior from one generation to the next illustrates the pervasive influence of maternal care on offspring development and the high degree of plasticity within the developing maternal brain. Investigations of the mechanisms through which these maternal effects are achieved have demonstrated environmentally-induced changes in gene expression associated with epigenetic modifications within the promoter region of target genes. These findings raise challenging questions regarding the pathways linking experience to behavioral variation and the broader ecological/evolutionary implications of the dynamic changes in neuroendocrine function that emerge. This review will highlight studies in laboratory rodents which demonstrate plasticity in the maternal brain and the role of maternally-induced changes in DNA methylation in establishing the link between variations in maternal care and consequent developmental outcomes. The persistence of maternal effects across generations and the trade-offs in reproduction that are evident in female offspring who experience high vs. low levels of maternal care contribute to our understanding of the divergent strategies that are triggered by the quality of early-life experiences. Evolving concepts of inheritance and the interplay between genes and the environment may advance our understanding of the origins of individual differences in phenotype.
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