Vole mates: gene makes males more receptive.
© L. Pitkow et al.
Spells and incantations step aside: scientists have found a genetic elixir of love. It makes males more faithful to females and more friendly to fellow males. It could also shed light on bonding disorders such as autism.
Larry Young of Emory University in Georgia and colleagues used a virus to deliver a gene straight to the part of voles’ brains responsible for rewards and addiction, the ventral pallidum. The gene made the animals’ brains more receptive to the hormone vasopressin1.
"Something about having more vasopressin receptors makes interacting with another individual more rewarding," says Young. The ventral pallidum, at the bottom front of vole and human brains, is believed to reinforce pleasurable experiences.
Addicted to love
Human brain-imaging research has implicated the ventral pallidum in romantic love and in drug addiction. It’s not surprising that the same region might be responsible for both, Young says: "People have always thought of love as an addiction."
Experiments show that animals in cages with striped walls injected with cocaine into their ventral pallidum seek out striped walls. They associate the wall pattern with the euphoria of the drug, Young says.
"Perhaps pair bonding is a similar thing," he suggests. "When a vole mates with a female, vasopressin is released in his brain, which stimulates the ventral pallidum. He gets a reward, and associates it with that female."
Vasopressin may also be associated with anxiety. Voles given the vasopressin receptor gene in the ventral pallidum were more anxious than normal: they ventured out into the open less often.
"This helps explain something we already know: that attachments often happen after a stressful experience," says Sue Carter of the University of Illinois, Chicago, who specializes in rodent and human hormones.
"Hormones released when animals are stressed could pave the way for new relationships," she says. "Animals form social bonds when they need them."
ERICA KLARREICH | Nature News Service
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