We know that in humans, people who have faced adversity as children show an inclination towards anti-social behavior and other neurological disorders such as bipolar depression, borderline personality disorder amongst others, later in life.
As a result, maternal care in many species, including humans has been shown to influence how an infant views his/her surroundings and grows a personality.
As parents we hope to teach children how to face adversities. However, two recent studies suggest quite an unconventional method of passing on this information in fishes and mice!
The study from the group of Dr. Alison Bell, at the University of Illinois, shows that father's care in three-spined stickleback fish produces a fit offspring that is less susceptible to predators and stress.
Another study by Dr. Isabelle Mansuy and her group from the Brain Research Institute based in Zurich has found that in mice, exposing fathers to early life stress, led to the development of adapted behaviors in the children that allowed them to react more efficiently in challenging conditions.
Now, how did the scientists demonstrate these findings? In the former study, Dr. Bell and her group manipulated access of young stickleback fish to their fathers, who are the sole providers of offspring care. The researchers then subjected the fishes to different stressors such as exposure to predators in their tank.
They found that fishes, which were deprived of paternal care, remained close to the walls of the tank and anxiously pecked at it, as a means of searching for an escape mechanism. This display of heightened anxiety was used as a measure of stressful behavior.
On the contrary, fishes with highly attentive fathers, managed to survive by successfully warding off predator attacks. More surprisingly, the scientists found that these behavioral outcomes seem to be in excellent agreement with certain genes turning on and off. This was achieved by imprinting these behavioral changes on the genetic materials. It indicated that fishes, which have been the recipient of father's love are fit with an epigenetically (on top of the genetic material) established ability to combat stress throughout life.
In the latter study, the researchers subjected the mice to challenging conditions. In particular, newborn mice were subjected to random and unpredictable separation from their mothers. In male mice, that had undergone unexpected maternal separation, the senior author Dr. Mansuy reports that , "Their offsprings have a more efficient use of complicated and changing rules to get water on a behavioral task when thirsty. "
Dr. Mansuy adds that, this finding is even more interesting due to the fact, " We also identified a target in the mice brain, that explains their improved behavioral flexibility and demonstrate that it is regulated by epigenetic mechanisms." This is where, findings of both the studies merge.
Nevertheless, these results suggest that probably not all early life stress is harmful and in fact some of it could be beneficial at a later stage! The finding implies that negative environmental factors in a father's early life, can benefit behaviors in the children.
Does the environment shape a human's personality? This is what Dr. Mansuy hopes to pursue in the future.
Overall, both these studies raise a thought provoking discovery! It highlights a critical role of a caring father in helping to raise stress resilient offsprings.
So Dads, are you listening?