Like humans, prairie voles are monogamous and both parents take care of the young.  But within populations, some parents consistently spend more time licking and grooming their young than others. Above, baby field voles. (Credit: Tim Dawson/Flickr)

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Vole parenting style can change pups’ brains

A new study with prairie voles takes a step toward answering the old debate over nature versus nurture: How much behavior do you inherit from your parents, and how much from the environment where you grow up?

Researchers say the amount of parental care a prairie vole gives its offspring can affect the youngster’s brain structure and connectivity, probably working by changing levels of gene expression.

Prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) are unusual among mammals because, like humans, they are monogamous and both parents take care of the young.  Yet within populations, some parents consistently spend more time licking and grooming their young than others.

“They show a wide range of parenting styles, from helicopter parents to free-range,” says Adele Seelke, a researcher in the psychology department at University of California, Davis.

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Offspring of “helicopter” or “high-contact” parents show the same behavior as adults, but cross-fostering studies show that young voles adopt behaviors they grow up with rather than those of biological parents.

In the new study, published online in the Journal of Comparative Neurology, researchers found differences in brain structure and connectivity between voles from high-contact and low-contact backgrounds.

“The amount and type of parental care affects brain structure and connections later on,” Seelke says. The researchers say this is the first time that differences in brain connections have been linked to different parenting styles.

The National Institutes of Health funded the work.

Source: UC Davis

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