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Mood, Food, and Fertility: Adaptations of the Maternal Brain

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Successfully rearing young places multiple demands on the mammalian female. These are met by a wide array of alterations in maternal physiology and behavior that are coordinated with the needs of the developing young, and include adaptations in neuroendocrine systems not directly involved in maternal behavior or lactation. In this article, attenuations in the behavioral and neuroendocrine responses to stressors, the alterations in metabolic pathways facilitating both increased food intake and conservation of energy, and the changes in fertility that occur postpartum are described. The mechanisms underlying these processes as well as the factors that contribute to them and the relative contributions of these stimuli at different times postpartum are also reviewed. The induction and maintenance of the adaptations observed in the postpartum maternal brain are dependent on mother‐young interaction and, in most cases, on suckling stimulation and its consequences for the hormonal profile of the mother. The peptide hormone prolactin acting on receptors within the brain makes a major contribution to changes in metabolic pathways, suppression of fertility and the attenuation of the neuroendocrine response to stress during lactation. Oxytocin is also released, both into the circulation and in some hypothalamic nuclei, in response to suckling stimulation and this hormone has been implicated in the decrease in anxiety behavior seen in the early postpartum period. The relative importance of these hormones changes across lactation and it is becoming increasingly clear that many of the adaptations to motherhood reviewed here reflect the outcome of multiple influences. © 2016 American Physiological Society. Compr Physiol 6:1493‐1518, 2016.

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Figure 1. Figure 1. Adaptations in the response of the extended stress circuitry and hypothalamic pituitary adrenal system to an acute stressor during lactation. Suckling induced PRL acts at the PVN to suppress the hormonal response to stress. The presence of PRL‐Rs in some areas of the extended stress circuitry suggests a potential role for this peptide hormone in stress appraisal. Arrows represent direction of change.
Figure 2. Figure 2. Lactation associated changes in peripheral signals of energy balance and the hypothalamic circuitry controlling food intake and metabolism. Circulating levels of anorectic factors such as leptin, insulin, and estrogen are decreased during lactation and those of orexigenic factors, such as glucocorticoids and PRL are increased. Although evidence supports a role for PRL in the hyperphagia of lactation, the precise mechanism(s) and sites of action are not yet defined. Arrows represent direction of change. Red indicates anorectic signals and green orexigenic signals.
Figure 3. Figure 3. Changes in the pathways controlling GnRH release as a function of reproductive state. Early in lactation suckling‐induced neural pathways have a greater suppressive effect on GnRH release than do suckling induced changes in hormonal state. By contrast in late lactation suckling‐induced PRL release and perhaps changes in GHSR1a in the arcuate nucleus make a major contribution to diminished GnRH release. Arrows represent direction of change. fx1 indicate receptors. Green indicates stimulatory effects and red inhibitory effects.

Figure 1. Adaptations in the response of the extended stress circuitry and hypothalamic pituitary adrenal system to an acute stressor during lactation. Suckling induced PRL acts at the PVN to suppress the hormonal response to stress. The presence of PRL‐Rs in some areas of the extended stress circuitry suggests a potential role for this peptide hormone in stress appraisal. Arrows represent direction of change.

Figure 2. Lactation associated changes in peripheral signals of energy balance and the hypothalamic circuitry controlling food intake and metabolism. Circulating levels of anorectic factors such as leptin, insulin, and estrogen are decreased during lactation and those of orexigenic factors, such as glucocorticoids and PRL are increased. Although evidence supports a role for PRL in the hyperphagia of lactation, the precise mechanism(s) and sites of action are not yet defined. Arrows represent direction of change. Red indicates anorectic signals and green orexigenic signals.

Figure 3. Changes in the pathways controlling GnRH release as a function of reproductive state. Early in lactation suckling‐induced neural pathways have a greater suppressive effect on GnRH release than do suckling induced changes in hormonal state. By contrast in late lactation suckling‐induced PRL release and perhaps changes in GHSR1a in the arcuate nucleus make a major contribution to diminished GnRH release. Arrows represent direction of change. fx1 indicate receptors. Green indicates stimulatory effects and red inhibitory effects.
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Barbara Woodside. Mood, Food, and Fertility: Adaptations of the Maternal Brain. Compr Physiol 2016, 6: 1493-1518. doi: 10.1002/cphy.c150036