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Pregnancy Timeline by SemestersFetal liver is producing blood cellsHead may position into pelvisBrain convolutions beginFull TermWhite fat begins to be madeWhite fat begins to be madeHead may position into pelvisImmune system beginningImmune system beginningPeriod of rapid brain growthBrain convolutions beginLungs begin to produce surfactantSensory brain waves begin to activateSensory brain waves begin to activateInner Ear Bones HardenBone marrow starts making blood cellsBone marrow starts making blood cellsBrown fat surrounds lymphatic systemFetal sexual organs visibleFinger and toe prints appearFinger and toe prints appearHeartbeat can be detectedHeartbeat can be detectedBasic Brain Structure in PlaceThe Appearance of SomitesFirst Detectable Brain WavesA Four Chambered HeartBeginning Cerebral HemispheresFemale Reproductive SystemEnd of Embryonic PeriodEnd of Embryonic PeriodFirst Thin Layer of Skin AppearsThird TrimesterSecond TrimesterFirst TrimesterFertilizationDevelopmental Timeline
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Home | Pregnancy Timeline | News Alerts |News Archive Aug 5, 2014

Using special brain imaging, and studies of genetic activity in individual brain cells
and cortisol in the blood, scientists zeroed in on a brain structure called the
lateral amygdala as the key location for learning fears.
Image Credit: University of Michigan Health System

 






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Mothers teach babies fears via mother's own odor

Research in rats may help explain how trauma's effects can span generations — and how irrational fears may be helped by blocking activity in the amygdala.

Babies can learn what to fear in the first days of life just by smelling the odor of their distressed mothers, new research suggests. And not just "natural" fears. If a mother experienced something before pregnancy that made her fear something specific, her baby will quickly learn to fear it too — through the odor she gives off when she feels fear.

In the first direct observation of this kind of fear transmission, a team of University of Michigan Medical School and New York University studied mother rats who had learned to fear the smell of peppermint – and showed how they "taught" this fear to their babies in their first days of life through their alarm odor released during distress.

In a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team reports how they pinpointed the specific area of the brain where this fear transmission takes root in the earliest days of life.

Their findings in animals may help explain a phenomenon that has puzzled mental health experts for generations: how a mother's traumatic experience can affect her children in profound ways, even when it happened long before they were born.


The researchers also hope their work will lead to better understanding of why not all children of traumatized mothers, or of mothers with major phobias, other anxiety disorders or major depression, experience the same effects.


"During the early days of an infant rat's life, they are immune to learning information about environmental dangers. But if their mother is the source of threat information, we have shown they can learn from her and produce lasting memories," says Jacek Debiec, M.D., Ph.D., the U-M psychiatrist and neuroscientist who led the research.

"Our research demonstrates that infants can learn from maternal expression of fear, very early in life," he adds. "Before they can even make their own experiences, they basically acquire their mothers' experiences. Most importantly, these maternally-transmitted memories are long-lived, whereas other types of infant learning, if not repeated, rapidly perish."

Debiec, who treats children and mothers with anxiety and other conditions in the U-M Department of Psychiatry, notes that the research on rats allows scientists to see what's going on inside the brain during fear transmission, in ways they could never do in humans. He began the research during his fellowship at NYU with Regina Marie Sullivan, Ph.D., senior author of the new paper, and continues it in his new lab at U-M's Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute.


The researchers taught female rats to fear the smell of peppermint by exposing them to mild, unpleasant electric shocks while they smelled the scent, before they were pregnant. Then after they gave birth, the team exposed the mothers to just the minty smell, without the shocks, to provoke the fear response. They also used a comparison group of female rats that didn't fear peppermint.


They exposed the pups of both groups of mothers to the peppermint smell, under many different conditions with and without their mothers present.

Using special brain imaging, and studies of genetic activity in individual brain cells and cortisol in the blood, they zeroed in on a brain structure called the lateral amygdala as the key location for learning fears. During later life, this area is key to detecting and planning response to threats – so it makes sense that it would also be the hub for learning new fears.

But the fact that these fears could be learned in a way that lasted, during a time when the baby rat's ability to learn any fears directly was naturally suppressed, is what makes the new findings so interesting, says Debiec.


The team even showed that the newborns could learn their mothers' fears even when the mothers weren't present. Just the piped-in scent of their mother reacting to the peppermint odor she feared was enough to make them fear the same thing.


And when the researchers gave the baby rats a substance that blocked activity in the amygdala, they failed to learn the fear of peppermint smell from their mothers. This suggests, Debiec says, that there may be ways to intervene to prevent children from learning irrational or harmful fear responses from their mothers, or reduce their impact.

The new research builds on what scientists have learned over time about the fear circuitry in the brain, and what can go wrong with it. That work has helped psychiatrists develop new treatments for human patients with phobias and other anxiety disorders – for instance, exposure therapy that helps them overcome fears by gradually confronting the thing or experience that causes their fear.


In much the same way, Debiec hopes that exploring the roots of fear in infancy, and how maternal trauma can affect subsequent generations, could help human patients. While it's too soon to know if the same odor-based effect happens between human mothers and babies, the role of a mother's scent in calming human babies has been shown.


Debiec, who hails from Poland, recalls working with the grown children of Holocaust survivors, who experienced nightmares, avoidance instincts and even flashbacks related to traumatic experiences they never had themselves. He feels that while they would have learned about the Holocaust from their parents, this deeply ingrained fear suggests something more at work.

Going forward, he hopes to work with U-M researchers to observe human infants and their mothers -- including U-M psychiatrist Maria Muzik, M.D. and psychologist Kate Rosenblum, Ph.D., who run a Women and Infants Mental Health clinic and research program and also work with military families.


The program is currently seeking women and their children to take part in a range of studies; those interested in learning more can call the U-M Mental Health Research Line at (734) 232-0255.


Significance
Despite clinical evidence that specific fear is transmitted across generations, we have little understanding of mechanisms. Here, we model social transmission of mother-to-infant fear in rodents. We show that maternal fear responses to a conditioned fear odor are sufficient to induce robust fear learning throughout infancy, with robust retention. Assessment of mechanism showed that maternal fear expression increases pups’ stress hormone corticosterone and amygdala activation to induce this cue-specific fear learning. Suppressing pups’ amygdala or preventing pups from mounting a stress response blocked this fear learning. Specific fears may thus be transferred across generations through maternal emotional communication and infant’s associative learning mechanisms. Elucidating the mechanisms of this transmission may inform the development of novel therapeutic and preventive approaches.

Abstract
Emotional trauma is transmitted across generations. For example, children witnessing their parent expressing fear to specific sounds or images begin to express fear to those cues. Within normal range, this is adaptive, although pathological fear, such as occurs in posttraumatic stress disorder or specific phobias, is also socially transmitted to children and is thus of clinical concern. Here, using a rodent model, we report a mother-to-infant transfer of fear to a novel peppermint odor, which is dependent on the mother expressing fear to that smell in pups’ presence. Examination of pups’ neural activity using c-Fos early gene expression and 14C 2-deoxyglucose autoradiography during mother-to-infant fear transmission revealed lateral and basal amygdala nuclei activity, with a causal role highlighted by pharmacological inactivation of pups’ amygdala preventing the fear transmission. Maternal presence was not needed for fear transmission, because an elevation of pups’ corticosterone induced by the odor of the frightened mother along with a novel peppermint odor was sufficient to produce pups’ subsequent aversion to that odor. Disruption of axonal tracts from the Grueneberg ganglion, a structure implicated in alarm chemosignaling, or blockade of pups’ alarm odor-induced corticosterone increase prevented transfer of fear. These memories are acquired at younger ages compared with amygdala-dependent odor-shock conditioning and are more enduring following minimal conditioning. Our results provide clues to understanding transmission of specific fears across generations and its dependence upon maternal induction of pups’ stress response paired with the cue to induce amygdala-dependent learning plasticity. Results are discussed within the context of caregiver emotional responses and adaptive vs. pathological fears social transmission.

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (DC009910, MH091451), and by a, NARSAD Young Investigator Award from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, and University of Michigan funds. Reference: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1316740111

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