New Study Explains Mama Bear Mode
By Lila Sahija
Back away slowly ….
From birds to mammals, fish to reptiles, the immediate reaction to a threat is typically self-preservation: freeze or flight, not fight. But then, across the animal kingdom, it’s also common to see mothers protecting their young. Is love behind the self-sacrificing ‘Mama Bear’ mode, or something else?
A team of researchers led by neuroscientists from the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, in Lisbon, Portugal, looked into what happens in the brains of parents when they are willing to sacrifice their own life in the interest of their offspring’s safety. It found that the flip from mothers’ self-defense to mothers protecting their young depends on how the so-called “love hormone,” oxytocin, affects the neurons of the amygdala, a brain structure known for its crucial role in processing emotional reactions.
Oxytocin is responsible for the bonding between mothers and their young, and within couples. Its effects are not well understood; oxytocin probably has many functions, which has made it difficult for scientists to parse it. Experts do know, however, that its release into the amygdala inhibits that basic self-defensive freezing in the face of a threat.
“We put both things together,” said Marta Moita, who led the study published in eLife. “We developed a new experiment that allows us to study the mother’s defensive behavior either in the presence or the absence of her pups, while at the same time testing whether oxytocin’s action in the amygdala is required for the regulation of this behavior.”
Moita’s team manipulated the rats’ brain circuitry to know exactly when oxytocin overpowered self-defensive freezing and prompted protective responses. The researchers then conditioned the mother rats, in the absence of their pups, to associate a peppermint scent with the imminence of an innocuous electric shock. After training, these female rats perceived the odor as a threat and froze accordingly.
When researchers released the peppermint scent in the presence of pups, the rat mothers didn’t freeze. On the contrary, they tried to protect their offspring from the peppermint odor by attacking the tube where the odor was coming from, or piling up bits of material from the nest to block the tube — or, if the pups were a little older, by nursing them, grooming them and generally keeping them in close contact with themselves.
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But, when this part of the experiment was repeated after scientists had blocked oxytocin activity in the mother rats’ amygdalas, the mothers started to freeze as soon as they perceived the threat — forgetting, so to speak, their maternal “duties.”
Interestingly, in this scenario, older pups who did not experience their mothers’ protection also did not learn to recognize the peppermint odor as a threat; when these pups were later placed by themselves in a box, and exposed to the same odor, they did not freeze — but the pups of rat mothers who had cuddled them did. Moita posits that a pheromone emitted by the mothers protecting their young might be at the root of whether or not older pups learned to recognize danger.
“In all likelihood,” she concludes, “similar mechanisms may be at play in us humans.”
So, don’t be surprised when your angry Mama Bear mode comes out. Instead, embrace it — because you literally cannot help it. Plus, you’ll be instilling the street smarts your kid needs to get by on his own