The 2021 Breakthrough Prize was rewarded to French-American researcher Catherine Dulac for her work on parental instinct.
On Thursday, September 10, Catherine Dulac received the Breakthrough Award, an award created in 2012 by the heads of Silicon Valley, for her work on parental instinct in mice. Her study, which began in 2002, showed that the care for offspring is dictated by hormones. As a result, “maternal instinct” is also present in male mice, as long as the hormones trigger this behavior.
A discovery that did not correspond to what the researcher expected at the time. “What fascinated us was to understand which areas of the brain control this behavior, and to try to determine if there is a difference between male and female brains,” explains the director of research at Harvard University. Thus, we did a series of experiments and discovered with great precision the regions of the brain, in an area called the hypothalamus, and in this area, the very particular type of neurons that are essential for parental behavior. The great surprise was that these neurons exist in both male and female brains.”
The instinct of parenting is found in both males and females
Thus, male and female mice can instinctively take care of the mice pups, just as they can kill them. While virgin male mice tend to get rid of the young mice to mate with the females, researchers observed that parental instinct appeared three weeks after reproduction. However, female mice can also be infanticidal due to lack of food, water, or too much pressure from predators.
What about humans?
“We do not know. But the region of the brain where these neurons are found, the hypothalamus, is a region where there are many functions that are found in all vertebrates, especially mammals,” explains Catherine Dulac. It is the region that controls hunger, satiety, thirst, sleep, reproduction, aggressive behavior, all kinds of behaviors that are found among the species. “Are the neurons that control the parental instinct also present? I bet they are, but we will have to do some research to prove it.”
It was the fact that this discovery goes against the determinism of gender behavior that attracted the jury at Breakthrough 2021. In addition to this recognition, the scientist won $3 million. She told AFP that she intends to donate part of it to causes related to the health and education of women and disadvantaged populations.