A number of epidemiological studies have implicated environmental chemicals including dioxins in the induction of negative effects on child development. To clarify the underlying mechanisms, almost all toxicologists have concentrated on effects on the offspring themselves. We examined an alternative hypothesis that gestational exposure to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), a highly-toxic dioxin, targets factors related to maternal childcare to disturb offspring development. Oral administration of TCDD (1 µg/kg) to pregnant rats on gestational day 15 suppressed maternal licking behavior, a nursing behavior, and mammary gland maturation during the lactational stage, as well as the body weight and short-term memory of postnatal offspring. In support of these findings, maternal production of prolactin, a pituitary hormone essential for nursing including milk production, was decreased during the same period. Intracerebroventricular infusion of prolactin to dioxin-exposed dams restored or tended to restore many of the above defects observed both in mothers and offspring. The TCDD-dependent defects in maternal nursing behaviors can be due to a direct action on aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) of lactating dams, because they did not emerge in AHR-knockout dams or control dams with TCDD-exposed offspring. Further examinations revealed that TCDD induces transforming growth factor β1 expression, which suppresses prolactin-producing cell proliferation, in a nursing period-specific manner. In agreement with this, the number of prolactin-positive cells in nursing dams was decreased by TCDD. These results provide novel evidence that gestational dioxin exposure attenuates prolactin-stimulated nursing in lactating dams to impair offspring development, and that immaturity of prolactin-producing cells can contribute to them.
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