Although a considerable body of research has focused on the neural substrates of social separation, relatively little is known about the neurobiology of social attachment. This proposal focuses on a monogamous rodent, the prairie vole, which forms selective, enduring social attachments or pair bonds. Several lines of evidence implicate central oxytocin (OT) pathways in prairie vole formation. OT increases and a selective OT antagonist decreases mating-induced pair bonding in female prairie voles as measured by the development of a partner preference. Blockade of OT receptors specifically in the nucleus accumbens inhibits development of a partner preference in female prairie voles. OT receptors are not found in this region in related vole species that do not form pair bonds. In prairie voles, OT receptors in the nucleus accumbens show a surprising individual variability. In approximately 20% of prairie voles, OT receptor mRNA or binding is virtually absent in this region, while OT receptors in other brain regions remain unaffected. We propose four new studies to investigate the importance of OT receptors in the nucleus accumbens for the development social attachments. The first study increases regional OT receptor expression in both prairie voles and non-monagamous montane voles, which do not form pair bonds. The second study explores the individual variation in nucleus accumbens OT receptors in prairie voles by comparing females with high and low levels of binding for regional gene induction and partner preference formation in response to OT. A third study investigates potential development mechanisms for the individual variation, based on a recent discovery that rats raised under different rearing conditions have different levels of OT receptor binding in adulthood. Finally, a fourth study explores molecular mechanisms for the individual differences in OT receptor expression. Taken together, these studies not only define a key step in the neurobiology of pair bonding, they may provide a molecular, cellular, and behavioral understanding of individual variation in a natural animal model system. The ultimate goal of this research is to provide new approaches to clinical disorders characterized by deficits in attachment, including autism and schizophrenia.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-IFCN-2 (01))
Program Officer
Quinn, Kevin J
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Emory University
Schools of Medicine
United States
Zip Code
Arai, Aki; Hirota, Yu; Miyase, Naoki et al. (2016) A single prolonged stress paradigm produces enduring impairments in social bonding in monogamous prairie voles. Behav Brain Res 315:83-93
Bosch, Oliver J; Dabrowska, Joanna; Modi, Meera E et al. (2016) Oxytocin in the nucleus accumbens shell reverses CRFR2-evoked passive stress-coping after partner loss in monogamous male prairie voles. Psychoneuroendocrinology 64:66-78
Modi, Meera E; Inoue, Kiyoshi; Barrett, Catherine E et al. (2015) Melanocortin Receptor Agonists Facilitate Oxytocin-Dependent Partner Preference Formation in the Prairie Vole. Neuropsychopharmacology 40:1856-65
McGraw, Lisa A; Young, Larry J (2010) The prairie vole: an emerging model organism for understanding the social brain. Trends Neurosci 33:103-9
Ross, Heather E; Young, Larry J (2009) Oxytocin and the neural mechanisms regulating social cognition and affiliative behavior. Front Neuroendocrinol 30:534-47
Ross, Heather E; Freeman, Sara M; Spiegel, Lauren L et al. (2009) Variation in oxytocin receptor density in the nucleus accumbens has differential effects on affiliative behaviors in monogamous and polygamous voles. J Neurosci 29:1312-8
Ross, H E; Cole, C D; Smith, Y et al. (2009) Characterization of the oxytocin system regulating affiliative behavior in female prairie voles. Neuroscience 162:892-903
Bales, K L; Plotsky, P M; Young, L J et al. (2007) Neonatal oxytocin manipulations have long-lasting, sexually dimorphic effects on vasopressin receptors. Neuroscience 144:38-45
Olazabal, D E; Young, L J (2006) Oxytocin receptors in the nucleus accumbens facilitate ""spontaneous"" maternal behavior in adult female prairie voles. Neuroscience 141:559-68
Olazabal, D E; Young, L J (2006) Species and individual differences in juvenile female alloparental care are associated with oxytocin receptor density in the striatum and the lateral septum. Horm Behav 49:681-7

Showing the most recent 10 out of 21 publications