What can science tell us about love? According to Larry Young, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University, hormones are responsible for monogamous behavior in animals.
Young, as part of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellows Series, spoke about his research in a lecture titled ‘The Monogamous Brain: What Can Science Tell Us About Love?’ on May 16 in the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
‘I am interested in how the different areas of the brain work together to produce the complex behaviors that we engage in,’ Young said. ‘I am also a human being. I have emotions like you do and I am interested in what those emotions are all about.’
Young conducts research on the molecular mechanisms and brain processes that define the social behavior of an individual. He specifically studies the effect that the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin have on the brain’s processing of social signals and attachment in rodents.
‘Before we ever get into the human brain, we have to learn the basic fundamentals of what is going on using animal models,’ Young said. ‘What makes prairie voles unusual among mammals is that they are highly social, monogamous and engage in social interactions. As a biologist, we realize that there are few animals out there that are truly monogamous. Only about five percent of mammals are monogamous.’
Young compared the highly social and monogamous prairie voles to the physically similar montane voles that are antisocial and polygamous to show that there are social behavior variations among similar species.
In order to test the attachment of males to females, Young placed a male prairie vole in a cage containing its mate and a stranger and observed that the male always returned to his mate.
‘Oxytocin is involved in the bonding of the female prairie vole to the male prairie vole,’ Young said. ‘Vasopressin is involved in the bonding of the male prairie vole to the female prairie vole.’
Young believes that the different behaviors in animals are due to different receptor sites. He found that manipulating genes can cause nonmonogamous animals to become monogamous.
‘We [took] animals and [performed] genetic manipulations to make one brain look like another,’ Young said. ‘We [took] the gene from the monogamous species and [transformed] social behavior through gene therapy. Every animal became like the prairie vole because of that gene.’
Young related his findings to human beings and posed the possible correlation between oxytocin and social behavior. His work has provided insight into the evolution of molecular and genetic mechanisms that give rise to social bonding and individual social behavior variations. Young’s research also provides a better understanding of the social behavior associated with psychiatric disorders such as autism.
‘Autistic children have decreased plasma oxytocin,’ Young said. ‘Oxytocin may enhance social cognition in autistic patients.’
Christina Wang, a first-year art history major, found these insights interesting.
‘The lecture was different because I did not necessarily understand the terminology but nonetheless, it was interesting because it focused on social relationships,’ Wang said. ‘Autism affects people who have no social skills and it is interesting to see the brain patterns of those people, especially since there are so many autistic people who are artistic.’
Diane Ko, a first-year biological sciences major, also found Young’s lecture intriguing, but was skeptical about its implications.
‘The speech was really interesting because Young’s research could possibly lead to how autism works and what to do to solve it,’ Ko said. ‘His speech gave insight into social relationships, but I do not think that you can really break down love and emotion scientifically because love is not just a bunch of hormones.’
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