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researchers show early life nurturing
impacts later life relationships
Prairie voles may serve as a useful model in
understanding the influence of
Researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory
University, have demonstrated that prairie
voles may be a useful model in understanding
the neurochemistry of social behavior.
By influencing early social experience in prairie voles,
researchers hope to gain greater insight
into what aspects of early social experience
drive diversity in adult social behavior.
The study is currently available online in a special edition of
Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience
that is focused on the long-term impact of
early life experiences.
Prairie voles are small, highly social, hamster-sized rodents that
often form stable, life-long bonds between
In the wild, there is striking diversity in how offspring are
reared. Some pups are reared by single
mothers, some by both parents (with the
father providing much of the same care as
the mother), and some in communal family
Researchers Todd Ahern, a graduate student in the Emory University
Neuroscience Program, and Larry Young, PhD,
professor of psychiatry and behavioral
sciences at the Yerkes Research Center and
Emory University School of Medicine,
compared pups raised by single mothers (SM)
to pups raised by both parents (BP) to
determine the effects of these types of
early social environments on adult social
"Our findings demonstrate that SM- and BP-reared animals
experienced different levels of care during
the neonatal period and that these
differences significantly influenced bonding
social behaviors in adulthood," says Ahern.
"These results suggest naturalistic variation in social rearing
conditions can introduce diversity into
adult nurturing and attachment behaviors.
"SM-raised pups were slower to make life-long partnerships, and they
showed less interest in nurturing pups in
their communal families," says Young.
Researchers also found differences in the oxytocin system. Oxytocin
is best known for its roles in maternal
labor and suckling, but, more recently, it
has been tied to prosocial behavior, such as
bonding, trust and social awareness.
"Very simply, altering their early social experience influenced
adult bonding," says Ahern.
Further studies will look at the altered oxytocin levels in the
brain to determine how these hormonal
changes affect relationships.