Animal Empathy Observed In Prairie Voles May Help Autism Research

Jan 24, 2016

Photo credit: Tatyana Kazakova/Pixabay

By Katherine Derla

Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center researchers found that mice-like prairie voles are capable of showing empathy when fellow voles are distraught. The study can be useful in better understanding and creating treatments for psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The brain chemical oxytocin is linked to social bonding and maternal nurturing in humans. Researchers discovered that oxytocin also acts in a brain of the rodents the same way as with humans, which enable the animals to have consoling behaviors.

This consoling behavior is strongest among voles that they are familiar with. The team didn’t find the same social behavior in the prairie vole’s close relative, the meadow vole.

“Scientists have been reluctant to attribute empathy to animals, often assuming selfish motives. These explanations have never worked well for consolation behavior, however, which is why this study is so important,” said co-author Frans de Waal, Ph.D., who first observed consolation behavior among animals by studying how chimpanzees comfort victims of violence in 1979.

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2 comments on “Animal Empathy Observed In Prairie Voles May Help Autism Research

  • The really interesting possibility for Frans De Waal and his team is to look for some mechanism between the ACC and whatever the precursor was for the PFC in these two contrasted vole types. Aspies self-console (stimming) and this may be the “normal” mode. The executive (as in Pre Frontal Cortex) may fail to signal to the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (in high primates linked by the fastest most important nerve types, spindle cells) that this other you are consoling is not yourself.

    Certainly a change in GABA transport in the PFC in our recent evolutionary history seems associated with autism and schizophrenia. “Errors” around issues of self cognition may have arisen numerous times.

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