Bidirectional Effects of Mother-Young Contact on the Maternal and Neonatal Brains

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2017;1015:97-116. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-62817-2_6.


Adaptive plasticity occurs intensely during the early postnatal period through processes like proliferation, migration, differentiation, synaptogenesis, myelination and apoptosis. Exposure to particular stimuli during this critical period has long-lasting effects on cognition, stress reactivity and behavior. Maternal care is the main source of social, sensory and chemical stimulation to the young and is, therefore, critical to "fine-tune" the offspring's neural development. Mothers providing a low quantity or quality of stimulation produce offspring that will exhibit reduced cognitive performance, impaired social affiliation and increased agonistic behaviors. Transgenerational transmission of such traits occurs epigenetically, i.e., through mechanisms like DNA methylation and post-translational modification of nucleosomal histones, processes that silence or increase gene expression without affecting the DNA sequence. Reciprocally, providing maternal care profoundly affects the behavior, learning, memory and fine neuroanatomy of the adult female. Such effects are in many cases permanent and sometimes they involve the hormones of pregnancy and lactation. The above evidence supports the idea that the mother-young dyad exerts profound and permanent effects on the brains of both adult and developing organisms, respectively. Effects on the latter can be explained by the neural developmental processes taking place during the early postnatal period. In contrast, little is known about the mechanisms mediating the plasticity of the adult maternal brain. The bidirectional effects that mother and young exert on each other's brains exemplify a remarkable plasticity of this organ for organizing itself and provide an immense source of variability for adaptation and evolution in mammals.

Keywords: Brain plasticity; Cognition; Critical periods; DNA methylation; Dendritic arborization; Epigenetic mechanisms; Lactation; Maternal behavior; Memory; Stress reactivity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology
  • DNA Methylation
  • Female
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Neurogenesis / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Pregnancy