The Role of Oxytocin in Threat Response

Posted on November 12, 2018

The fight-or-flight response has been widely studied and the findings have been replicated across species. Recently, researchers looked at fear responses in parents when threats occur in the presence of their young and found that a new threat response surfaces – protection of the offspring instead of fight-or-flight. This article explores the neuroscientific mechanisms underlying the switch from self-defense to protection of their young.

Neuroscientists found that this change in parents’ behaviours during a perceived threat hinges on the action of oxytocin, widely believed to be associated with nurturant parental behavior, on the neuros of the amygdala, the brain structure associated with the processing of emotional responses.

Researchers believe that when oxytocin is released into the amygdala, it inhibits the basic survival instinct of freezing. It was widely thought that freezing was an evolved adaption meant to help the threatened animal stay unnoticed from the predator, but the present study proposed another reason for this behavior.

The present experiment sought to examine how mother rats reacted when faced with a threat, either in the presence or absence of her offspring. Mother rats were first conditioned to associate the smell of peppermint with an electric shock, resulting in their fear of the peppermint scent. After the training of the association was done, mother rats would freeze when they smelled the scent of peppermint. They then went through the same experimental procedures again both in the presence and absence of their offspring.

In the condition where the offspring were present, mother rats did not freeze, though they did so when they were alone. Instead, they displayed a protective response over their offspring by trying to attack the tube from where the smell was emanating, stuffing the tube to prevent the scent from diffusing further, or by keeping her offspring in close physical contact if they were of an older age. This appeared to be the response under typical oxytocin response on the amydala.

However, when oxytocin activity was blocked, mother rats would behave as they do when they were alone even if their offspring were present. This meant that the protective response that was expected would be replaced by the freezing response.

Another finding from the present study worth noting is that though mother rats of older offspring froze in response to the peppermint scent, they did not learn to recognize the scent as a threat. Similarly, pups followed the reaction of their mothers; in other words, if they did not see their mothers freezing when the scent appeared, they did not freeze when they were put in the same condition later on without their mothers.

The researchers believe that the mechanisms and behaviours observed in the present study may be extended to humans as well.

Category(s):Fear, Parenting

Source material from Medical Xpress

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