Cerebral Hemispheres 2


Have a Face Only a Mother Could Love? Without Serotonin She Thinks You're Just as Ugly as Everyone Else Does

As the popularity of antidepressant medication has burgeoned over the past few decades, serotonin has become one of the more publicly recognized neurotransmitters. Along with that popularity has come a trend of attributing a wide variety of behaviors (especially depression) to “serotonin imbalances”. While this is a gross simplification in most cases, it does seem to be clear that there is a correlation between serotonin transmission and behavior.

A group of researchers at Case Western Reserve University has recently shown that the disruption of serotonergic function in mice is powerful enough to inhibit one of their strongest instincts: caring for their young. They used female mice with a mutation that causes a reduction in the expression of serotonergic genes and in the synthesis of the neurotransmitter, and monitored the survival of their young after they gave birth.

99% of the pups of the wild-type (normal) mice lived past the nurturing period of youth, but none of the pups of the serotonin-inhibited mothers survived. In fact, most of them were dead after 3-4 days. When the researchers took pups born to the serotonin-deficient mothers and gave them to the wild-type mothers to raise, the pups survived. The serotonin-deficient mothers failed to nurse their pups, didn't build nests for them, and didn't organize them near her in a huddle (which is necessary for their warmth and survival).

The serotonin-inhibited mothers did not seem to exhibit deficiencies in any other behavioral assay, such as maze-running or olfaction. They were not deemed to be overly anxious as measured by locomotor tasks, but instead of mothering they often simply paced the cage and engaged in repetitive digging. The authors suggest that anxiety behaviors may have been more prominent if not for the relaxing effect lactating has on rodents.

How applicable these findings are to humans is, of course, completely unclear. Postpartum depression is often treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, but even if untreated doesn’t generally lead to abandonment of one’s children. Regardless, finding a neurochemical substrate for an instinct like caring for one's young is notable, as it is a behavior essential to what is widely considered the goal of existence: high reproductive fitness.


Lerch-Haner, J.K., Frierson, D., Crawford, L.K., Beck, S.G., Deneris, E.S. (2008). Serotonergic transcriptional programming determines maternal behavior and offspring survival. Nature Neuroscience, 11 (9), 1001-1003. DOI:10.1038/nn.2176


Sleep. Memory. Pleasure. Fear. Language. We experience these things every day, but how do our brains create them? Your Brain, Explained is a personal tour around your gray matter. Building on neuroscientist Marc Dingman’s popular YouTube series, 2-Minute Neuroscience, this is a friendly, engaging introduction to the human brain and its quirks using real-life examples and Dingman’s own, hand-drawn illustrations.

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This book shows a whole other side of how brains work by examining the most unusual behavior to emerge from the human brain. In it, you'll meet a woman who is afraid to take a shower because she fears her body will slip down the drain, a man who is convinced he is a cat, a woman who compulsively snacks on cigarette ashes, and many other unusual cases. As uncommon as they are, each of these cases has something important to teach us about everyday brain function.

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