Different levels of a receptor for a hormone involved in social bonding may explain individual variation in offering comfort during stressful situations. Like humans, animals console each other in times of distress: monkeys hug and kiss, and prairie voles groom each other.
Emory postdoc James Burkett described his research on voles at a press conference on “The Neuroscience of Emotion and Social Behavior” at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego on Sunday. Here are Video (Burkett’s part is roughly from 4:50 to 9:00) and the scientific abstract.
Burkett’s presentation, on oxytocin-dependent comforting behavior in prairie voles, outlined an extension of his graduate work with Larry Young at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, which was published in Science in January 2016 and impressed oxytocin skeptic Ed Yong. Burkett, now in Gary Miller’s laboratory at Rollins School of Public Health, also masterminded a Reddit “Ask me anything” in February.
The rest of the Society for Neuroscience press release:
Previous research indicates oxytocin—a hormone that promotes social and maternal bonding—acts in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of the prairie vole brain to encourage consoling behavior. In humans, the ACC activates when people see others in pain. Some degree of personal distress motivates comforting behaviors, but too much actually makes animals (including humans, chimpanzees, and rats) less likely to offer comfort.
In this study in prairie voles, researchers explored whether the amount of the receptor for oxytocin correlates with empathetic behaviors, and they predicted the animals with the greatest number of oxytocin receptors would experience too much personal stress and comfort others less. Researchers exposed prairie voles to light foot shocks while “observer” animals watched. Afterward, they monitored the number of consoling behaviors, like grooming, that the observer prairie voles performed and measured the amount of oxytocin receptor in the animal’s ACC. As predicted, prairie voles with the highest levels of oxytocin receptor displayed the fewest consoling behaviors.
“This finding suggests that an individual’s tendency to show pro-social consolation can be predicted by measurable characteristics in the brain,” Burkett says. “It has important implications for understanding and treating psychiatric disorders in which detecting and responding to the emotions of others can be disrupted, including autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia.”