The Monitor Daily (U.S.) – According to the latest research stemming from Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, empathy isn’t characteristic solely to humans anymore. Albeit controversial, the research proved that prairie voles comfort each other when situations get tough.
The laboratory experiment led by Larry Young, Ph.D., and James Burkett, Ph.D., put prairie voles in stressful situations. While one rodent was submitted to mild shocks after being exposed to a specific audio signal, another was already showing signs of distress despite not being exposed to the same conditions. Furthermore, when the distressed prairie vole was released, its peer rushed to comfort it.
The experiment is the first to show a consoling response in rodents, based on empathy. According to the findings published in the Science journal, the results could play a key role in further understanding certain psychiatric disorders. Among them, schizophrenia or ASD are characterized by the impeded capability to detect and respond to others’ emotions.
Prairie voles are rodents well known for forming monogamous pairs lasting for a lifetime. The prairie vole pair attends to the offspring in a bi-parental setting. If the small rodents are capable of forming this type of bonds, could they also show empathy?
According to the research, they are. Prairie voles comfort each other when situations get tough. What’s more, the researchers observed that the consoling response was directed specifically at well-known peers during the experiment. If the prairie voles didn’t have the chance to socialize before, the unstressed rodent didn’t rush to comfort its distressed peer. The study findings found that the consoling response with prairie voles was triggered by oxytocin.
Oxytocin is released in our brains and promotes social bonding as well as nurturing mechanisms. When prairie voles observed well-known peers in distress, their anterior cingulate cortex was activated. The same response is observed in humans when seeing that someone else is in pain. As such, the research team concluded that the nurturing mechanisms activated by oxytocin prompted the prairie voles to console distressed peers.
To test the accuracy of the hypothesis, the researchers blocked the production of oxytocin in the anterior cingulate cortex of the small rodents. As a result, the prairie voles no longer rushed to comfort their distressed peers. The consoling response previously observed disappeared entirely. Thus, the findings of this study provide researchers with further material to study social engagement via brain mechanisms underlying empathy. Such research could stem the basis of ASD treatment options.
Photo Credits: Flickr