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Craig Kinsley's Lab

Lab Description

Maternal behavior is the defining characteristic of the mammal. The same forces in operation in many species of mammal likewise govern human behavior, complex though it is. The control of, and activity within, the brain is primary, foremost, and indubitable, and its role in regulating maternal behavior is, therefore, a fascinating area of study.

As we begin to think about the innumerable factors that contribute to the maternal brain, it becomes apparent that mothers are made, not born. The requisite processes involve a cocktail of hormones, neuropepetides, and neurotransmitters, and a host of neural regions that are modified through interactions with this neurochemical environment. The neurochemicals involved with childbirth play key roles in the preparation of the maternal brain--including prolactin, estrogen/estradiol, progesterone, oxytocin and the stress hormone corticosterone (CORT). The actions of these substances on key interacting neural structures cause strong and long-lasting structural and functional modifications – cognitive enhancements – that summate to increase the probability of maternal and offspring survival. 

Dr. Craig Kinsley's laboratory and his students are interested in the formation of the underlying maternal substrate and brain-behavior relationships that forge the mammalian phenomenon of maternal behavior. They hypothesize that maternal behaviors, such as attention, fear and aggression, will be significantly modified. The effects are likely to be long-lived. And these manifest changes are reliant on the production of a specific subset of pup-responsive cells (that they have, in fact, observed and that they refer to as “Maternal Neurons.”

Together these neurochemical/hormonal-neural interactions ensure adequate maternal care and successful reproduction, although there are graphic exceptions. Once researchers more clearly understand what should happen, they gain better insights into the consequences of a failure in the system – whether mouse, rat or human. Overall, the lab's work is directed at better understanding the mechanisms underlying a fully functioning maternal brain.

Excerpt from a recent article

What turns a young female concerned mainly about herself into a good mother who will make sure her offspring survive in an otherwise hostile world?  The bodily changes of childbearing are obvious, but as we are discovering, the changes in the brain are no less dramatic.

The maternal brain is a formidable object, a singular entity forged by hormones, neurochemicals, and exposure to the ravening demands and irresistible cuteness of offspring. During pregnancy, the female brain is effectively revving up for the difficult tasks that await. A mother-to-be may most notice her cravings for ice cream and pickles, but inside her head, a transformation is afoot in fundamental functions ranging from attention to memory.

Among the remarkable changes are those that allow the mother to focus on her infants in the persistent attempt to puzzle out the child’s needs and wants.  As any parent knows, the infant is inscrutable – indeed, the child remains so for much of the parent’s life – and intuition is the mother’s best friend.  The parent tests hypotheses: Is the baby hungry? Tired? A sensitized brain facilitates these “experiments.”  Mothers are really scientists.

- An excerpt from an article by Dr. Kinsley and Dr. Franssen in Scientific American Mind