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Primary parental preoccupation: circuits, genes, and the crucial role of the environment


Parental caregiving includes a set of highly conserved behaviors and mental states that may reflect both an individual’s genetic endowment and the early experience of being cared for as a child. This review first examines the mental and behavioral elements of early parental caregiving in humans. Second, we consider what is known about the neurobiological substrates of maternal behaviors in mammalian species including some limited human data. Third, we briefly review the evidence that specific genes encode proteins that are crucial for the development of the neural substrates that underlie specific features of maternal behavior. Fourth, we review the emerging literature on the “programming” role of the intrauterine environment and postnatal caregiving environment in shaping subsequent maternal behavior. We conclude that there are critical developmental windows during which the genetically determined microcircuitry of key limbic-hypothalamic-midbrain structures are susceptible to early environmental influences and that these influences powerfully shape an individual’s responsivity to psychosocial stressors and their resiliency or vulnerability to various forms of human psychopathology later in life.

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Leckman, J., Feldman, R., Swain, J. et al. Primary parental preoccupation: circuits, genes, and the crucial role of the environment. J Neural Transm 111, 753–771 (2004).

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  • Keywords: Maternal behavior, gene-environment interactions, stress response, psychopathology, resiliency, intrauterine environment, early intervention programs