Neural Mechanisms of Social Cognition and Bonding
Research on the neural mechanisms of social behavior has particular relevance for autism. These mechanisms are now being revealed in voles, which constitute a promising model for understanding social cognition because of differences between vole species. For example, prairie voles are highly social and are socially monogamous, while meadow voles and montane voles are polygamous and solitary. Understanding the differences between these species can eventually pinpoint the neural circuits and mechanisms governing social behavior. Previous research in Dr. Young's lab using this model has shown that certain hormones and neuropeptides help to promote social bond formation. This project is based on the hypothesis that the neuropeptide oxytocin facilitates social learning through interactions with the neurotransmitters dopamine and glutamate. Together they may impact the molecular pathways involved in synaptic plasticity and learning and memory. Dr. Young's fellow will conduct experiments designed to understand the interaction between oxytocin and glutamate, which will include testing whether clinically available glutamatergic compounds can enhance social cognition in the prairie vole. Behavioral pharmacology and molecular biology techniques will be used, and these two approaches promise to elucidate molecular mechanisms of social learning. What this means for people with autism: Understanding the neural mechanisms of social cognition will help identify new therapeutic strategies for improving social behavior in people with autism. Oxytocin and pharmaceuticals that target glutamate are currently under investigation as possible therapeutic agents in autism, so these studies are important to clarify how they may be operating in the brain.