Quirky little prairie voles hold answers

Larry Young, PhD

So says Larry Young, PhD, chief of the Division of Behavioral Neuroscience and Psychiatric Disorders at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University.

Young, who is world-renowned for his work on the role of neuropeptides in regulating social behavior, uses voles to investigate the neurobiological and genetic mechanisms underlying social behavior. Using the monogamous prairie vole (vs. the promiscuous meadow vole) as a model organism, Young and his research team identified the oxytocin and vasopressin receptors as key mediators of social bonding and attachment. In addition, they are examining the consequences of social bond disruption as a model of social loss-induced depression.

This work has important implications for developing novel treatment strategies for psychiatric disorders associated with social cognitive deficits, including autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia.

What compels Young to further his studies is exactly this – to learn more about what causes autism, schizophrenia and other disorders characterized by deficits in social engagement. Young recently took two major steps to garner more information from his hamster-sized rodents: convincing the National Institutes of Health to sequence the vole genome within the next two years, a move that will accelerate the discovery of genes contributing to social function; and developing the first transgenic voles, a technology that allows researchers to manipulate individual genes to understand their effect on social bonding and other complex social behaviors.

Young believes the vole model could be used to improve social cognition. His next steps are to apply the discoveries made in voles to nonhuman primates, whose brain function is more similar to that of humans.

For more information about Young’s work and that of other researchers at Yerkes, read the feature article “Coupling” in the Spring 2010 issue of Emory Health magazine,

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