Prairie voles’ social bonding offers hopes for new autism therapies

April 30th, 2011 - 11:30 am ICT by ANI  

Washington, April 30(ANI): The process by which prairie voles learn to bond with their mate are offering researchers at the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience (CTSN) at Emory University a useful tool for finding new autism therapies.

The prairie vole is one of the few species in nature that is monogamous and that creates deep social bonds while mating.

“The prairie vole model has enabled us to learn about complex neural pathways in social areas of the brain,” said senior author Larry Young.

“We believe these insights will be useful in identifying drugs that enhance social cognition and learning,” he added.

The researchers found that giving female voles the drug D-cycloserine, which is thought to facilitate learning and memory, can encourage them to bond with a new male more quickly than usual.

For more than 15 years, Young and his colleagues have been studying the prairie vole as a model to explore the neurobiology of altruistic and other pro-social behaviors, including cooperation, compassion and bonding.

The basic mechanisms of voles’ and humans’ social learning are similar enough that the learning that occurs during voles’ pair bonding can model complex human social interactions, said Young.

The researchers have previously used voles to show the importance for social interactions of hormones such as oxytocin, which has also been proposed as a treatment for autism spectrum disorders.

With voles, the ‘partner preference paradigm’ works like this: sexually naive females are placed with sexually experienced males for six hours of cohabitation. The females are not ovulating and no mating occurs. Normally, pair-bonding requires more time — 24 hours — and mating is necessary.

Later, the females are given a choice between spending time with the newly familiar male and a stranger; researchers then measure how much time they spend with each male over the next three hours.

When a low dose of the drug D-cycloserine is injected at the start of cohabitation, the female prefers the familiar male by a factor of at least four. Without the drug, the female doesn’t markedly prefer either male.

Currently, there are no drugs that specifically target social deficits found in individuals with autism, said Young.

Most drugs now prescribed for individuals with autism were originally developed for other disorders such as depression or schizophrenia.

The results are published online and will appear in a future issue of Biological Psychiatry. (ANI)

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