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.