Discovery of consoling behavior in prairie voles may benefit autism research

Researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, have discovered that a social laboratory rodent, the prairie vole, shows an empathy-based consoling response when other voles are distressed. This is the first time researchers have shown consolation behavior in rodents, and this discovery ends the long-standing belief that detecting the distress of others and acting to relieve that stress is uniquely human.

In the study, which is published in the journal Science, co-authors Larry Young, PhD, and James Burkett, PhD, demonstrated that oxytocin — a brain chemical well-known for maternal nurturing and social bonding — acts in a specific brain region of prairie voles, the same as in humans, to promote consoling behavior. Prairie voles are small rodents known for forming lifelong, monogamous bonds and providing bi-parental care of their young. Dr. Young is a faculty member in the NS and PBEE programs.

Consolation is defined as calming contact directed at a distressed individual; for example, primates calm others with a kiss and embrace, whereas voles groom others. The prairie voles’ consoling behavior was strongest toward familiar voles, and was not observed in the closely related, but asocial, meadow vole.

Click here to view the full story in the Emory News Center. The story is also featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Popular Science, Tech Times, The Independent, and The Australian.