“Why do we do what we do? One reason I’m interested in instinctive behaviors is the idea that somehow specific stimuli are driving us toward specific behaviors, whether it’s eating when you’re hungry or you see food, or thirst, or parenting behavior,” she said. “What drives these behaviors? What drives parenting? What antagonizes the drive toward parenting is something interesting — just to try to understand how the brain is controlling behavior.”

These behaviors arise on occasion in animals not raising offspring, such as virgins or sexually mature males that are strangers to a group. These anti-parental behaviors typically switch to caring interactions in these animals after the birth of their own offspring or familiarization to infants. Females in many species are also known to attack or neglect their young during stressful circumstances, such as food shortages or when there is a high risk of predation.

In humans, parenting quality is highly affected by stress and psychological conditions such as postpartum depression, which affects 10-20 percent of new mothers. The study of neural circuits that underlie behavior may help scientists better understand the effects of health and disease on parenting.

The Dulac lab typically focuses on studying parental behavior but a study in 2018 looking at smell receptors related to infant-directed aggression led them to follow up more on anti-parental behavior. The most recent work was led by Anita E. Autry, an assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, while she was a researcher in the lab.

Next steps in the project involve further examination of the urocortin-3 neurons in the perifornical area, which their research suggests are involved in the aggression response against infants, and identifying an activation switch for them.

This work was supported by the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Wellcome Trust, National Institute of Mental Health, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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