The present review focuses on recent studies from our laboratory examining the neural circuitry subserving rat maternal motivation across postpartum. We employed a site-specific neural inactivation method by infusion of bupivacaine to map the maternal motivation circuitry using two complementary behavioural approaches: unconditioned maternal responsiveness and choice of pup- over cocaine-conditioned incentives in a concurrent pup/cocaine choice conditioned place preference task. Our findings revealed that, during the early postpartum period, distinct brain structures, including the medial preoptic area, ventral tegmental area and medial prefrontal cortex infralimbic and anterior cingulate subregions, contribute a pup-specific bias to the motivational circuitry. As the postpartum period progresses and the pups grow older, it is further revealed that maternal responsiveness becomes progressively less dependent on the medial preoptic area and medial prefrontal cortex infralimbic activity, and more distributed in the maternal circuitry, such that additional network components, including the medial prefrontal cortex prelimbic subregion, are recruited with maternal experience, and contribute to the expression of late postpartum maternal behaviour. Collectively, our findings provide strong evidence that the remarkable ability of postpartum females to successfully care for their developing infants is subserved by a distributed neural network that carries out efficient and dynamic processing of complex, constantly changing incoming environmental and pup-related stimuli, ultimately allowing the progression of appropriate expression and waning of maternal responsiveness across the postpartum period.
© 2011 The Authors. Journal of Neuroendocrinology © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.