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Mapping a Pup-responsive Pathway from the Medial Preoptic Area to the Ventral Tegmental Area.

Maternal behavior is the complex array of caregiving behaviors females display towards offspring. In rats, the transition to motherhood depends on the action of various hormones, especially estradiol near parturition, which primes the maternal circuitry to respond to pups upon first encounter at parturition with appropriate maternal behavior. Although virgin rats avoid pups, new mothers are highly motivated to interact with pups, and their maternal behavior depends on the functional interaction between the medial preoptic area (mPOA) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA). However, a precise mapping of the VTA-projecting mPOA neurons remains to be elucidated. To determine whether pup-responsive neurons in the mPOA project to the VTA, we injected the retrograde tracer Fluorogold (FG) into the VTA of new mother and virgin female rats. Six days later, females were exposed to 3 pups for 5 minutes, and their brains processed to visualize FG and c-Fos immunostaining. In addition, we further characterized the molecular phenotype of these neurons by performing immunohistochemistry against estrogen receptor alpha (Esr1). As expected, the behavior of postpartum and virgin females toward pups was different. Mothers readily approached pups and displayed maternal behavior, whereas virgins avoided interaction with pups. Despite these disparate responses to pups, no differences were found in the number and distribution of mPOAc-Fos→VTA neurons. In addition, in both postpartum and virgin females, a significant proportion of these pup-responsive mPOA→VTA projecting neurons also express Esr1. Further functional interrogation of these c-Fos+/Esr1+ mPOA→VTA neurons in virgins and mothers might elucidate distinct circuit dynamics potentially underlying their behavioral differences towards pups.
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