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Prairie Voles Show Empathy For Stressed Relatives

Jan 24, 2016 10:48 PM EST
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A new study suggests that feelings of empathy are not unique to humans. Researchers from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University discovered that prairie voles console their loved ones when they appear distressed.

Prairie voles are small rodents known for forming lifelong, monogamous bonds and sharing parental care of their young. In the latest study, prairie voles were temporarily separated from some of their closest relatives and given mild shocks. When the voles were reunited, researchers found the non-stressed individuals immediately comforted the stressed voles by grooming and licking them. It turns out that oxytocin, the famous "love hormone," plays a major role in this behavior, according to a news release

Consolation behaviors have been noted among nonhuman, social species such as elephants, dolphins and dogs. However, this is the first study to prove such behaviors exist in rodents. 

"Scientists have been reluctant to attribute empathy to animals, often assuming selfish motives. These explanations have never worked well for consolation behavior, however, which is why this study is so important," study co-author Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, explained in the release. 

Researchers found that when one vole saw another individual - generally a familiar vole - in distress it activated the animal's anterior cingulate cortex, which is the brain region that is also activated when humans see another person in pain. When the prairie voles responded by increasing their pro-social contact, it also clearly reduced the other's anxiety. However, when researchers blocked oxytocin signaling specifically in the anterior cingulate cortex of prairie voles, the animals no longer consoled others in distress. 

Their study, recently published in the journal Science, creates an opportunity to explore the neural mechanisms of this previously unrecognized consolation behavior in laboratory animals. In turn this could help scientists better understand psychiatric disorders in humans, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and schizophrenia. 

"Many complex human traits have their roots in fundamental brain processes that are shared among many other species," co-author Larry Young added in Emory's release. "We now have the opportunity to explore in detail the neural mechanisms underlying empathetic responses in a laboratory rodent with clear implications for humans."

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