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2012 News Releases

Longwood students probe brains for signs of memory

October 10, 2012

Research at Longwood is showing what most mothers probably already know: moms are smarter than non-moms.

Raising children can give a woman 'mommy brain,' but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Research at Longwood is showing what most mothers probably already know: moms are smarter than non-moms.

Longwood University students are trying to figure out why that is. Mothers have been shown to plan better, solve problems more effectively and better cope with stress and anxiety.

Adam Franssen, assistant professor of biology, and his students are looking for neurological evidence of a piece of that overall theory. They are probing rat brains for evidence of prospective memory-the ability to plan or do a task in the future. Behavioral studies have shown that mother rats are much better at using this form of future thinking than males. The question is: what goes on in the brain to give females the advantage?

To do this, they take samples of brain tissue so thin they can barely be seen, and stain them so neurons that were used recently can be counted. This data is compared to normal neurological activity, and comparisons are made to find what areas of the brain are used to perform this activity.

Once the areas are located, they have found the smoking gun. Or in this case, the smoking neuron.

The work is in collaboration with faculty and students at the University of Richmond, who have performed behavioral experiments and concluded that mother rats use prospective memory. In their tests, the rats would store food for their helpless pups when they knew none would be available in the future.

While male rats were generally uninterested in pups and only thought about feeding themselves, the mother rats in the studies would risk danger to gather food and then store it when they knew none would be available later. They would also fill up on water. Franssen said this is evidence they understand and are planning for future situations.

"This is another brick in the wall of the larger theory that mothers gain an advantage," said Franssen. "It has already been shown that they plan better, more effectively cope with stress and have better problem-solving skills. At Longwood, we are looking at what happens in the brain when they are doing that planning."

What happens inside the brain to make these changes happen is the great unknown. It could be, Franssen said, that hormones rewire the brain. It could be that certain switches get turned on, unlocking traits and behaviors. Or it could be that being around pups-smelling them and hearing them-activates a dormant part of the brain.

"The exciting part about this research is that it's open-ended. We don't know what we are going to find or where it will take us. There are a thousand roads we could go down," Franssen said.

If Franssen and students can find the evidence that supports the conclusions of the study, it "will be used to strengthen the larger argument that motherhood conveys concrete neurological advantages," said Dr. Craig Kinsley, a professor at the University of Richmond who led the behavioral experiments in the study.

Previously, it was thought that only humans are able to use prospective memory. Kinsley and some students were able to show behaviorally that it is used in mother rats caring for pups.

"This is on the cutting edge, and to have students collaborate on a study of this scope opens major doors for them," said Franssen.

[Mother/stroller image courtesy of Shutterstock]