Intelligent animals are known to show empathy for loved ones. Now, according to new research published in the journal Science, consoling behavior has been observed in a rodent as well: the prairie vole.
“Consolation behavior promotes stress reduction of one by another. We know that consolation occurs in humans and apes. Burkett et al. observed that within a pair of monogamous prairie voles, an unstressed partner increased its grooming of a stressed partner. Furthermore, the unstressed partner matched the stressed partner in its stress hormone response. Thus, consolation may be more common than assumed in animals, and prairie voles may prove a useful model for understanding the physical and neural mechanisms underlying consolation behavior.” -Science, Vol 351, Issue 6271, p. 375
Researchers say the findings, published Thursday, could help scientists better understand human disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, in which a person’s ability to sense the emotions of others is disrupted.
The secret to empathetic behavior is in the hormone oxytocin, which promotes maternal bonding and feelings of love. Scientists at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, in Atlanta, Gergia, created an experiment in which they isolated prairie voles from others they knew. These rodents were an ideal candidate for the experiment, as they mate in long-term monogamous pairs and raise their offspring together.
Then they gave one prairie voles a series of mild shocks before returning it to its loved one. Once reunited, the unaffected rodents swiftly began to lick and groom the fur of the animals that were in distress after the shocks.
They “licked the stressed voles sooner and for longer duration, compared to a control scenario where individuals were separated but neither was exposed to a stressor,” said a statement from Emory University.
Consoling behavior was also not seen in prairie voles that were unfamiliar with each other before being separated.
Knowing that the receptor for oxytocin is associated with empathy, researchers decided to block this neurotransmitter in the brains of some of the animals. They found that blocking oxytocin caused the animals to stop consoling each other.
“Many complex human traits have their roots in fundamental brain processes that are shared among many other species,” said co-author Larry Young, director of the Silvio O. Conte Center for Oxytocin and Social Cognition at Emory University.
Young said his research points to a potential role for oxytocin in the treatment of autism spectrum disorder, though more work is needed.
“We now have the opportunity to explore in detail the neural mechanisms underlying empathetic responses in a laboratory rodent with clear implications for humans.”
May this research someday help the countless people afflicted by human disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, and may their ability to sense the emotions of others be no longer disrupted.
Happy Bunday (|^_^|)