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At the Lab Episode 6: Supermoms to the rescue

image of Cold Spring Harbor campus from across the harbor with At the Lab podcast logo and portrait of Stephen Shea

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Not all heroes wear capes. You can always count on a supermom to come to the rescue of a child in distress. But just what motivates this behavior, and why does a supermom feel so good when she embraces her crying child? In this episode of At the Lab, Professor Stephen Shea gives us a possible answer.

Read the related story: The science of supermoms


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Sue Weil-Kazzaz: You’re now At the Lab with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. My name is Sue Weil-Kazzaz, and this week At the Lab, “Supermoms to the rescue.”

{Music from Mighty Mouse cartoon}

SWK: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … your mother!

SWK: Mother’s Day is around the corner. So, right about now, you’re probably A) realizing you forgot to buy a gift and B) recalling memories of childhood, like a time your mom picked you up after a bad day at school or a devastating dance recital or—well, you get the idea.

SWK: No matter what else she has going on, supermom is always ready to come to the rescue. This behavior isn’t unique to us. CSHL Professor Stephen Shea investigates maternal pup retrieval in mice as a way to better understand how mammals’ brains navigate all kinds of social situations. Here’s Professor Shea.

Stephen Shea: We all know that as human beings, it’s rewarding to touch another person, but we don’t know a lot about the mechanisms of that. We know a lot about how we find drugs and cake and fun rewarding. But we know far less about how we perceive social contact as rewarding. We’re interested in not only how we perceive that, but how we use that to modify future behavior.

SWK: In other words, how do supermoms know to come get the kids and why do they like it so much? Shea’s team found their answers in a part of the brain called the VTA. Here, they identified a group of neurons that release dopamine whenever a mother mouse picks up a crying pup.

SS: It’s a very ancient mechanism in the brain that mice and humans and many other animals share. Dopamine is important for motion and reward and motivation, but in this case, dopamine is actually instructing the behavior and reinforcing it.

SWK: The mother’s social contact with the pup feels, well, rewarding! This instructs her to continue picking up the pup whenever there’s a sign of distress.

SWK: Shea is now investigating how VTA neurons influence other social interactions. This might someday provide new insight into neurodevelopmental disorders and a better understanding of how our brains work.

{Cartoon narrator: Mighty Mouse!}

SWK: Oh, and remember to thank your supermom this Mother’s Day!

SWK: Thanks for listening to At the Lab. Please subscribe to get another fascinating story like this delivered each week. You can also find us online at For Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, I’m Sue Weil-Kazzaz, and I’ll see you next time At the Lab.