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Biological Chemistry

Mouse Mother’s Milk Promotes Memory

Scientists identify proteins transmitted through milk that enhance brain development in young mice

by Jyllian Kemsley
December 9, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 49

Mouse mothers don’t realize it, but they program their offspring’s brain development and memory through nursing, according to research led by Miklos Toth of Weill Cornell Medical College (Nat. Neurosci. 2013, DOI: 10.1038/nn.3596). The effect originates in maternal expression of tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α), a protein that regulates immune response. Mice engineered to lack the TNF-α gene are more susceptible to pathogens compared with those with the gene. But the offspring of TNF-α-deficient mothers show better memory. Toth and colleagues track the effect to the amount of signaling proteins that mothers secrete into milk. Less TNF-α in the mother’s blood-forming stem cells reduced the concentration of signaling proteins in her milk. Reduced signaling proteins in turn led to greater cell growth and division in the brains of her offspring—in particular in the part of the brain that governs memory and spatial navigation. The offspring, as adults, performed better on spatial memory tests compared with mice fed as infants with normal amounts of the signaling proteins. The effect may be adaptive, the researchers suggest, because physical activity and stress can suppress TNF-α production. A challenging living environment could therefore lead to better survival rates through memory improvement, they note.


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