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Keywords:

  • Family factors;
  • hormones;
  • parent–child interaction;
  • maternal care;
  • epigenetic;
  • DNA methylation

Parental care plays an important role in the emotional and cognitive development of the offspring. Children who have been exposed to abuse or neglect are more likely to develop numerous psychopathologies, while good parent–infant bonding is associated with improved resiliency to stress. Similar observations have also been reported in non-human primates and rodents, suggesting that at least some neurodevelopmental aspects of parent–offspring interactions are conserved among mammals and could therefore be studied in animals. We present data to suggest that frequency of licking and grooming provided by the dam during a critical period in development plays an important role in modifying neurodevelopment. These findings are examined in the broader context in which exposure to other sensory modalities such as vision or hearing during a specific period in development shapes brain development with functional consequences that persist into adulthood. We also discuss recent rodent work showing that increased frequency of licking and grooming provided by the dam during the first week of life is associated with changes in DNA methylation of promoter elements that control expression of these genes and behavior. The stability of DNA methylation in postmitotic cells provides a possible molecular scaffold by which changes in gene expression and behavioral traits induced by postnatal maternal care are maintained throughout life. Finally, the relevance of findings reported in rodents to those noted in non-human primates and humans are assessed and the research and clinical implications of these observations for future work are explored.