Guest post from Neuroscience graduate student Amielle Moreno.
Why do scientists know more about the brain during fear than love? Behaviors such as startling and freezing in response to a fearful stimulus are rapid, vary little between subjects, and are easy to interpret. Things get messy when individuals show variability. Social behavior, like intimate partner selection and mating, has a lot of variability. To researchers willing to explore the neuroscience of love and mating, the stage is set for major discoveries.
A recent research study published in Nature from the Liu and Young laboratories at Emory and Yerkes uncovered a dynamic conversation between two brain regions during intimate behavior. The new findings in prairie voles explore the brain connections behind social connections. Read more
Oxytocin, a peptide hormone first studied for its roles in childbirth and lactation, has been a hot topic recently, partly because of excitement around the idea of using it to treat autism spectrum disorders. (There has even been a bit of a backlash.)Â Larry Young is quoted extensively in Greg Miller’s balanced take on oxytocin in Science:
“In my view, the best benefit from stimulating the oxytocin system is going to be to combine it with a controlled behavioral therapy,” Emory’s Young says. He believes that oxytocin’s main effect is to make people more sensitive to social cues. In a therapist’s office, children could be assured of receiving positive, reinforcing social cues while under the hormone’s sway. Not so if they cheap oakley sunglasses simply take the hormone and went about their day. “Say you give it to a kid and then he goes to school and gets bullied. That’s not going to have a positive impact, and it may even make things worse,” Young says.
A better handle on the basic biology of intranasal oxytocin, such as how it enters the brain and which receptors it hits, might enable researchers to develop more effective drugs, Young adds. “If we want to move beyond this initial investigatory era and get more sophisticated and potent effects, we need to understand the mechanisms.”
Young is the chief of the division of behavioral neuroscience at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, the director of the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience and William P. Timmie professor of psychiatry. He is well known for his research on the neuroscience of social bonding in voles, and recently co-authored a book titled “The Chemistry Between Us.” His laboratory is engaged in research outlined in the second part of his quote above.
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.