Parenting style affects young voles’ brains

“Nature versus Nurture” is an old debate. How much behavior do you inherit from your parents, and how much from the environment where you grow up? A new study from the University of California, Davis shows that the amount of parental care a prairie vole gives its offspring affects the youngster’s brain structure and connectivity – probably working by changing levels of gene expression. The work is published online in the Journal of Comparative Neurology and will appear in print in a forthcoming special issue of the journal.

The prairie vole is one of the few mammal species in which both parents care for the young. Credit: Adele Seelke

The prairie vole is one of a few mammal species in which both parents care for the young. Credit: Adele Seelke

Prairie voles (Microtus ochragaster) are unusual among mammals because, like humans, they are monogamous and both parents take care of the young.  Yet within populations, some vole parents consistently spending more time licking and grooming their young than others.

“They show a wide range of parenting styles, from helicopter parents to free-range,” said Adele Seelke, a researcher in the UC Davis Department of Psychology.

Offspring of “helicopter” or “high-contact” parents show the same behavior as adults, but cross-fostering studies show that young voles adopt behaviors they grow up with rather than those of biological parents.

In the new study, Seelke and colleagues found differences in brain structure and connectivity between voles from high-contact and low-contact backgrounds.

“The amount and type of parental care affects brain structure and connections later on,” Seelke said. It’s the first time that differences in brain connections have been linked to different parenting styles.

Coauthors on the study are Allison Perkeybile, Rebecca Grunewald, Karen Bales and Leah Krubitzer at the UC Davis Department of Psychology and Center for Neuroscience. The work was funded by the NIH.

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