Does the parental instinct exist?
To this complex question, a French researcher has just given the beginning of a positive answer… in mice.
Catherine Dulac even received this week a very richly endowed American scientific prize, of 3 million dollars, the Breakthrough Prize to reward her work on the subject.
An amount which is three times that granted to the Nobel Prize winners.
It is paid by American entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.
The neurobiologist has updated how the parenting instinct works in the mouse brain.
These rodents are indeed endowed with circuits of neurons, which instinctively dictate a female to generally take care of her young.
On the contrary, in males, other neural circuits induce it to attack the young.
But the researcher has also shown that reality is not as binary, between male and female, and that neural circuits sometimes encourage a mother, stressed, to kill her young, while fathers, for their part, can also care for their offspring.
His major contribution is to have shown that males and females each have the behavioral circuits of both sexes within them.
Their hormones activate one or the other of the circuits.
Tracks for humans
It remains to be seen whether what is observed in mice can be found in mammals.
"We think that what we have found can extend to other species, including humans," explains Catherine Dulac.
“Instinct is precisely how these neurons work.
I think they are in the brains of all mammals and tell the animal, when there are signals about the presence of newborns: you have to take care of them ”.
The question of parental instinct, however, is complex.
In the book “Our brains, all the same, all different” (Ed. Belin, 2015), the neurobiologist Catherine Vidal wrote: “No instinct is expressed in its raw state in human beings.
If such a biological rule existed, it would be universal.
However, we can see that all parents do not act in the same way when faced with the same fact: the birth of their child.
Our brains are extremely complex.
We cannot reduce the human being to a machine that responds to the action of hormones ”.
"I had opportunities to have my own lab in the United States"
But this question continues to fascinate researchers, as evidenced by the award received by Catherine Dulac.
Today this 57-year-old woman is a professor at the very prestigious Harvard University in the United States (Massachussets), a true temple of science.
She moved to the United States 25 years ago, when she is originally from Montpellier.
Then she did Normale Sup and a doctorate.
“My post-doc worked very well, and I had opportunities to have my own lab in the United States, which I did not have in France.
They told me:
oh you are much too young to have your own budget, you don't have enough experience to be independent
Catherine Dulac therefore decided to settle at Harvard, ultimately obtaining dual nationality.
She intends to donate part of the amount of her prize to the health and education of women and disadvantaged populations.