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article imageRats learn fear through odors

By Tim Sandle     Aug 2, 2014 in Science
A new study has found that rodent pups can learn to fear a stimulus through the odor signals given by their mother. The findings suggest a mechanism for how animals might inherit the experiences of their parents.
Specifically the study has found that female rats conditioned to fear a particular smell can transmit that fear to their pups by giving off their own odor alarms. To elaborate further, Jacek Debiec, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Michigan who led the research, said in a research note: "During the early days of an infant rat’s life, they are immune to learning information about environmental dangers. But if their mother is the source of threat information, we have shown they can learn from her and produce lasting memories."
Summarized by The Verge, the research was conducted as follows: the mother rats were conditioned to fear the smell of peppermint before they were pregnant. In a later experiment after their pups were born, the mothers were put in a chamber and exposed to peppermint. At the same time, their pups—in a separate chamber—were exposed to the air from their mothers’ chamber, which was piped in to them along with the smell of peppermint. In this situation, the pups also learned to fear peppermint, presumably by detecting the odor of their mothers’ fear response. Compared to control pups whose mothers had not been fear conditioned, they had elevated cortisol levels upon smelling peppermint.
The study findings have been published in the journal PNAS, in a paper titled "Intergenerational transmission of emotional trauma through amygdala-dependent mother-to-infant transfer of specific fear".
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