Medial prefrontal cortex: genes linked to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have altered expression in the highly social maternal phenotype
In the rat, the change from a virgin/nulliparous female to the maternal animal takes place at many levels. A subtle developmental wave washes over the female nervous system and transforms her from largely self-centred to offspring-directed, from personal care and protection to care of genetically-related offspring, from indifference to ardour. Such change is preceded by substantial and apparently permanent neural alterations, the depth of which results in the maternal brain, and is the basis of the present review. The neuroplasticity of pregnancy, inherent to the female brain and, we believe, representative of the full expression of the female nervous system's capacity, is a result of significant hormonal and other neurochemical actions. It results in the striking brain changes that are associated with, and necessary for, successful reproduction. We discuss some of these changes and their ramifications. Collectively, they represent the culmination of mammalian evolution and have led to the development of the social brain characteristic of higher orders of mammal, including the human. We also examine different facets of the maternal brain, beginning with a review of the genes involved in maternal behaviour, and in the subsequent 'expression' of the maternal brain. We next discuss olfaction and the manner in which this major sense draws from the rich sensory milieu of the mother to regulate and support maternal behaviour. Last, we discuss the 'whys' of maternal behaviour, a theoretical foray into the reasons for such substantial maternal brain alterations. We focus on the male's potential role as the raison d'etre for the manifest alterations in his mate's brain. In the end, it is clear that the female brain undergoes a significant reorganisation en route to motherhood, the results of which are deep and enduring.