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social behavior

Social isolation and the adolescent brain

We can’t read Emory neuroscientist Shannon Gourley’s papers on social isolation in adolescent mice, without thinking about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting children and teenagers. Much of the experimental work was completed before the pandemic began. Still, in the future, researchers will be studying the effects of the pandemic on children, in terms of depression and anxiety, or effects on relationships and education. They could look to neuroscience studies such as Gourley’s for insights into brain mechanisms.

What will the social isolation of the pandemic mean for developing brains?

In the brain, social isolation interferes with the pruning of dendritic spines, the structures that underly connections between neurons. One might think that more dendritic spines are good, but the brain is like a sculpture taking shape – the spines represent processes that are refined as humans and animals mature.

Mice with a history of social isolation have higher spine densities in regions of the brain relevant to decision-making, such as the prefrontal cortex, the Emory researchers found.

In a recently published review, Gourley and her co-authors, former graduate student Elizabeth Hinton and current MD/PhD Dan Li, say that more research is needed on whether non-social enrichment, such as frequent introduction of new toys, can compensate for or attenuate the effects of social isolation.

This research is part of an effort to view adolescent mental health problems, such as depression, obesity or substance abuse, through the prism of decision-making. The experiments distinguish between goal-oriented behaviors and habits. For humans, this might suggest choices about work/school, food, or maybe personal hygiene. But in a mouse context, this consists of having them poke their noses in places that will get them tasty food pellets, while they decode the information they have been given about what to expect. 

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Mouse version of 3q29 deletion: insights into schizophrenia/ASD pathways

Scientists at Emory University School of Medicine have created a mouse model of human 3q29 deletion syndrome, which is expected to provide insights into the genetic underpinnings of both schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder.

In 3q29 deletion syndrome, a stretch of DNA containing several genes is missing from one of a child’s chromosomes. The deletion usually occurs spontaneously rather than being inherited. Affected individuals have a higher risk of developing intellectual disability, schizophrenia, and autism spectrum disorder. 3q29 deletion is one of the strongest genetic risk factors for schizophrenia, and the Emory researchers see investigating it as a way of unraveling schizophrenia’s biological and genetic complexity.

The results were published in Molecular Psychiatry.

“We see these mice as useful tools for understanding the parts of the brain whose development is perturbed by 3q29 deletion, and how it affects males and females differently,” says Jennifer Mulle, PhD, assistant professor of human genetics. “They are also a starting point for dissecting individual genes within the 3q29 deletion.”

Working with clinicians and psychologists at Marcus Autism Center, Mulle is leading an ongoing study of 3q29 deletion’s effects in humans, and observations from the mice are expected to inform these efforts. (More about Mulle here.) Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

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.

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Voles and the neurochemistry of social behavior

A new study has shown that prairie voles may be a useful model in understanding the neurochemistry of social behavior. By influencing early social experience in prairie voles, researchers hope to gain greater insight into what aspects of early social experience drive diversity in adult social behavior.

VolesPrairie voles are small, highly social rodents that often form stable, life-long bonds between mates. In the wild, there is striking diversity in how offspring are reared. Some pups are reared by single-mothers, some by both parents (with the father providing much of the same care as the mother) and some in communal family groups.

Researchers Todd Ahern, a graduate student in the Emory Neuroscience Program, and Larry Young, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Emory School of Medicine, compared pups raised by single mothers (SM) to pups raised by both parents (BP) to determine the effects of these types of early social environments on adult social behavior.

The study showed SM- and BP-reared animals experienced different levels of care during the neonatal period and that these differences significantly influenced bonding social behaviors in adulthood. Pups raised by single mothers were slower to make life-long partnerships, and they showed less interest in nurturing pups in their communal families.

Researchers also found differences in the oxytocin system. Oxytocin is best known for its roles in maternal labor and suckling, but, more recently, it has been tied to prosocial behavior, such as bonding, trust and social awareness. Very simply, altering their early social experience influenced adult bonding.

Further studies will look at the altered oxytocin levels in the brain to determine how these hormonal changes affect relationships.

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