The theory that the voles’ contented home life is caused by a protein that recognizes the oxytocin “love hormone” is called into question by a study published on January 27 in the journal Neuron.
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It’s possible that bonding is not as crucial to oxytocin’s function as previously thought. The chemical has repeatedly been referred to as the “hug hormone,” the “moral molecule,” and even the cause of love and success due to its links to the pleasures of romance, orgasms, altruism, and more. Although females without the receptor produced less milk, oxytocin receptor removal in animal models nevertheless caused monogamous mating, attachment, and parental bonding behaviors. Findings show that love hormone receptors do not solely control parenting and bonding.
The hypothalamus generates oxytocin, which the pituitary gland then releases into the bloodstream. One of its most obvious human tasks is causing the uterus to contract during childbirth, and it is even employed medically to aid in the induction of labor. After that, it aids in controlling breast milk production. However, it also appears to support several social behaviors in both mammals and humans. Studies have revealed that oxytocin is frequently released during bonding experiences between new mothers and their babies, romantic partners during sex, and even between an owner and pet. Some studies have even revealed that both humans and dogs release oxytocin when they are close to one another.
The Research on Prairie Voles
Researchers from Stanford University and other institutions have long been interested in prairie vole studies, especially as a way to better understand human social behavior. More recently, they’ve started to create methods for employing CRISPR, a tool frequently used for researching mice and other animals, to specifically modify the genes of these animals. They chose to investigate what would happen if they bred voles with their love hormone receptors knocked off, nullifying any potential impacts of the hormone on their development, as part of their initial tests of this technology.
Prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster), one of the few species of mammals known to maintain lifetime and primarily monogamous relationships with their mating partners, have been the subject of much of the love hormone research. According to research, oxytocin and the hormone vasopressin both seem to be crucial in controlling these behaviors in voles. Male voles that were given medicines that prevented them from absorbing oxytocin, for example, began spending substantially less time with their spouses.
The Test Results
To their surprise, the mutant voles didn’t seem all that different in terms of how they cared for their young and formed bonds with their spouses (a shared task for parents).
Male and female voles develop long-lasting social bonds after having sex despite lacking love hormone receptors. Additionally, they can deliver puppies on time, and perhaps most surprisingly, they can provide enough milk to ensure that many puppies thrive until weaning. However, the pups that survive are smaller than those born to normal moms, suggesting that the oxytocin receptor plays a significant(but not indispensable) role in milk ejection and feeding.
The results differ from earlier research that attempted to block oxytocin in these voles, but the authors speculate that this may be due to how this was done. For instance, drugs that can block the oxytocin receptor in adult voles may have unintended consequences, but the team’s gene editing should be more specific. It’s also plausible that oxytocin does play a crucial role in vole social behavior beyond a certain stage of development, making its removal unavoidable. Voles that are unable to process oxytocin from birth, on the other hand, may compensate in other ways to ensure healthy development.
The team’s research, which was published on Friday in Neuron, isn’t the first to demonstrate that oxytocin’s impact on sociability isn’t always clear-cut. Additionally, there isn’t much proof that oxytocin dosages can significantly enhance social functioning in humans. However, the findings shouldn’t completely undercut oxytocin’s significance for both people and prairie voles. The researchers now have a new challenge to tackle as a result of their study.
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