Child neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment, yet the biological basis of maternal neglect is poorly understood and a rodent model is lacking.
The current study characterizes a population of mice (MaD1) which naturally exhibit maternal neglect (little or no care of offspring) at an average rate of 17% per generation. We identified a set of risk factors that can predict future neglect of offspring, including decreased self-grooming and elevated activity. At the time of neglect, neglectful mothers swam significantly more in a forced swim test relative to nurturing mothers. Cross-fostered offspring raised by neglectful mothers in turn exhibit increased expression of risk factors for maternal neglect and decreased maternal care as adults, suggestive of possible epigenetic contributions to neglect. Unexpectedly, offspring from neglectful mothers elicited maternal neglect from cross-fostered nurturing mothers, suggesting that factors regulating neglect are not solely within the mother. To identify a neurological pathway underlying maternal neglect, we examined brain activity in neglectful and nurturing mice. c-Fos expression was significantly elevated in neglectful relative to nurturing mothers in the CNS, particularly within dopamine associated areas, such as the zona incerta (ZI), ventral tegmental area (VTA), and nucleus accumbens. Phosphorylated tyrosine hydroxylase (a marker for dopamine production) was significantly elevated in ZI and higher in VTA (although not significantly) in neglectful mice. Tyrosine hydroxylase levels were unaltered, suggesting a dysregulation of dopamine activity rather than cell number. Phosphorylation of DARPP-32, a marker for dopamine D1-like receptor activation, was elevated within nucleus accumbens and caudate-putamen in neglectful versus nurturing dams.
These findings suggest that atypical dopamine activity within the maternal brain, especially within regions involved in reward, is involved in naturally occurring neglect and that MaD1 mice are a useful model for understanding the basis of naturally occurring neglect.