Decreased mesolimbic dopaminergic signaling underlies the waning of maternal caregiving across the postpartum period in rats

  • Zachary A. GriebEmail author
  • Erika M. Vitale
  • Joan I. Morrell
  • Joseph S. Lonstein
  • Mariana Pereira
Original Investigation



Mesolimbic dopamine (DA) signaling is essential for the high maternal caregiving characteristic of the early postpartum period, but little is known about dopamine’s role in the expression of maternal caregiving thereafter.


We tested the hypothesis that decreased mesolimbic dopaminergic signaling is particularly responsible for the natural decline in maternal caregiving that occurs as the postpartum period progresses.


Sprague-Dawley (SD) mother rats received intraperitoneal injections of either vehicle, the DA D1 receptor agonist SKF38393, the DA D2 receptor agonist quinpirole, or both agonists twice daily from postpartum days 9 to 15. In a separate experiment involving Long-Evans (LE) rats, we examined whether DA D1 and D2 receptor mRNAs in the nucleus accumbens (NA) shell and ventral tegmental area (VTA), along with DA turnover in the VTA, decline across the postpartum period in parallel with the decreasing maternal behavior.


All drug treatments significantly maintained higher frequencies of active maternal behaviors (nesting, pup licking, retrieval) compared to vehicle. Furthermore, the majority of mothers treated with SKF38393 either alone or combined with quinpirole maintained full expression of maternal behavior during behavioral testing. D2 receptor mRNA levels were found to be lower in the late postpartum NA shell and VTA compared to early postpartum, but D1 receptor mRNA levels in the NA shell were higher in the late postpartum period. Furthermore, both late postpartum and recently parturient LE mothers had higher VTA DA turnover compared to nulliparae, suggesting changes in mesolimbic signal-to-noise ratio both at the end and beginning of motherhood.


Collectively, our results suggest that alterations in mesolimbic DA is part of the neural substrate responsible for dynamic maternal caregiving across the entire postpartum period.


Dopamine Maternal behavior Motivation Nucleus accumbens Ventral tegmental area 



The authors would like to thank Dr. Jack W. Lipton and Allyson Cole-Strauss for their assistance with the HPLC analysis.

Funding information

These studies were funded by a NARSAD Young Investigator Award and NIDA SOAR DA027945 awarded to MP, DA014025 to JIM, and HD097085 to JSL.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors have no conflicts of interest to report and are in control of all primary data. On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Neuroscience ProgramMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  2. 2.Neuroscience InstituteGeorgia State UniversityAtlantaUSA
  3. 3.Department of Psychology, Behavioral Neuroscience ProgramMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  4. 4.Center for Molecular and Behavioral NeuroscienceRutgers UniversityNewarkUSA
  5. 5.Department of Psychological and Brain SciencesUniversity of MassachusettsAmherstUSA

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