If rats had thumbs

So I’m sitting here doing maternal observations thinking it’s been a long time since I updated my blog. It’s been a tumultuous couple of months for me between experiments, moving apartments, and numerous other things. However, I should be back in full force for the time being.

Last time I talked about some of the more Frankenstein-ish things that I do in the lab. Maternal observations are not one of those things. Our lab is very concerned with maternal care in general. Some people study the mothers and look at the things in the brain that drive maternal care, whereas others like myself are interested in the effects of different early life environments on development.

For a lab rat, the early life environment is solely determined by the mother’s behaviour. They are all fed the same, they are in the same kind of cage, they all get the same bedding. However, maternal care varies quite a bit between rat mothers, just as it does for humans.

A rat mother’s behavioural repertoire is, however, much more limited than a human’s. What we score are simple things like whether the mother is in contact with her litter or not, what sort of position she holds while nursing, and most importantly, how much time she spends licking and grooming her pups. We do this 5 times a day for 75 minutes over the first six days of life, which as you imagine can be quite boring (hence the blog update). Also not particularly Frankenstein-ish, but you get a white coat and a clipboard so you feel very much like a not-so-mad scientist.

What we have found in the past is that pups that receive a small amount of licking and grooming grow up to be more anxious than their well-licked brethren. This is a fascinating effect, and it’s interesting trying to imagine what the equivalent would be in humans. One alumnus from our lab gave a seminar in New York and was approached by a group of women after the talk, who proudly announced that they’d been licking their children to reduce their anxiety, just like in our research papers.

I wish I was joking.

Again, clearly humans have a wider range of behaviours than rats, even crazy New York humans who have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. We have things like thumbs and vocal cords that allow us to talk to our children, hold them in our arms, make faces and noises and all manner of things. Rats get their mouths, more or less, which limits the sorts of things they can do with their babies.

For the record, we do not endorse licking your children. Personally, I think that the licking and grooming in the rat is a rodent equivalent to the attention we lavish upon our own children like in the examples above. If rats had thumbs, things would likely be much different in their lives, and not just where maternal behaviour is concerned.

t’s very much a taboo these days to judge mothers (or people in general) as “good” or “bad.” One important thing that we try to make clear in our research is that we classify the moms based on their behaviour, but we don’t try to label them as “good” or “bad” moms. A rat that received a high amount of licking is less anxious as an adult, and that may seem like a good thing. However, in the rodent world, a little anxiety and fearful behaviour go a long way to promote survival. A fearless rat in the wild quickly becomes fast food.

Unless we’re talking crazy New York sewer rat, in which case I guess they can afford to be fearless. Good thing they don’t have thumbs…

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Posted in General science.

Posted on 28 Sep 2009

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