Extensive studies involving mice and rats showed that early life experiences could have profound effects on intellectual, emotional and social development. Negative parenting environments can affect the stress response in young pups, and make them hyper-vigilant to threats, while nurturing and supporting upbringing can instill resilience and novelty-seeking behaviors.
Studies of how new nerves developed in the brains of young pups also hinted at the importance of parental care; positive parental environments tended to promote the growth of neurons in the dentate gyrus, a region of the brain responsible for learning, storing memories and spatial coordination. So researchers from the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) decided to take a closer look at different parenting models to figure out how they affected nerve growth and the behavioral consequences of that neural development.
Once the young animals were weaned, the researchers put them through a series of tests to measure their cognitive, memory and social skills, as well as their fear response. They also injected the animals with a dye that could track the growth of new neurons wherever they sprouted in the brain.
To their surprise, they discovered that being raised in either of the two-parent situations boosted nerve growth in the dentate gyrus, but especially for the male mice. Female mice showed the same amount of neural growth regardless of whether they were raised by one or two parents, but they still developed more new nerves in the memory-processing area of the brain than male mice raised just by their mothers.