Adults of many species will care for young offspring that are not their own, a phenomenon called alloparenting. However, in many cases, nonparental adults must be sensitized by repeated or extended exposures to newborns before they will robustly display parental-like behaviors. To capture neurogenomic events underlying the transition to active parental caring behaviors, we analyzed brain gene expression and chromatin profiles of virgin female mice co-housed with pregnant dams during pregnancy and after birth. After an initial display of antagonistic behaviors and a surge of defense-related gene expression, we observed a dramatic shift in the chromatin landscape specifically in amygdala of the pup-exposed virgin females compared to females co-housed with mother before birth, accompanied by a dampening of anxiety-related gene expression. This epigenetic shift coincided with hypothalamic expression of the oxytocin gene and the emergence of behaviors and gene expression patterns classically associated with maternal care. The results outline a neurogenomic program associated with dramatic behavioral changes and suggest molecular networks relevant to human postpartum mental health.
ASJC Scopus subject areas