Mothers are better able to handle stress than females who have never experienced motherhood, according to a new study. “Indeed, several studies report that new mothers are better able to learn to navigate in their environment, a behavior that would more often than not have positive consequences for survival of the offspring,” said Lisa Y. Maeng of the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers University and lead author of the study. “We have also noted enhanced learning as a consequence of motherhood. In this case, the act of maternal behavior itself prevents a learning deficit that occurs in virgins after exposure to a stressful life event.”
Research has also shown that females who have taken on mothering roles, without actually giving birth, deemed “maternal virgins,” also exhibit similar behaviors. In order to determine if the mothering behavior created the protective factor, or if it was only a result of actually giving birth, Maeng and her colleagues conducted a stress experiment on female rats who were “maternal virgins” and rats who were biological mothers and found a significant difference in responses. “Exposure to the stressor suppressed learning in virgins but not in females that had been mothers at some time in their lives,” said Maeng. “These data suggest that maternal experience induces a protective mechanism in mothers, which promotes associative learning long after the offspring have left their care.”
Maeng also noted that mothers and depressed women share some similar brain characteristics. “For example, the prefrontal cortex is preferentially activated in depressed women and in mothers by infant cues. The region is also critically engaged during the stressor to reduce learning in virgin females.” Maeng added, “If the mechanisms within those regions are shared, one might imagine therapies that could target these regions and thereby protect women from the negative consequences of stressful life experience on their thoughts and behaviors.”
Maeng, L. Y., & Shors, T. J. (2011, December 19). Once a Mother, Always a Mother: Maternal Experience Protects Females From the Negative Effects of Stress on Learning. Behavioral Neuroscience. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026707
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