In The Field

AAAS: The greatest mystery of all….

Since it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow, you know what I’m talking about. That’s right, it’s love. Valentine’s Day always happens some time during this conference, to the eternal consternation (or relief?) of conference-goers forced to spend the holiday apart from their adored ones. But it usually means we get treated to some “science of romance” stories, and this year is no exception, as the conference organizers thoughtfully organized a press conference on the science of kissing.

But I eschewed the kissing thing (no offense, but it always leads to gross visions of spit and slobber and lots of tortured metaphors) in favor of a session at which my favorite rodent was featured. That’s right – the indomitable prairie vole (pictured below). They’re not just my favorite U.S.-dwelling rodent because I am a proud daughter of Illinois, whose official motto is “The Prairie State.” They have also managed to make themselves indispensable to biologists merely by an accident of nature, which is the fact that they behave a lot like ideal humans in their romantic endeavours. They choose one partner, stick with that partner, and share their baby-rearing duties with that partner. For life.

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Prairie voles and their relatives have selflessly provided evidence of all sorts of things, such as the fact that male polygamous voles can be turned monogamous by genetic engineering or by the injection of a brain chemical. And the same types of brain chemicals involved in adult bonding are also essential to helping voles raise their babies well, Sue Carter of the University of Illinois, Chicago told the meeting today.

Carter has found that the prairie voles suffer when removed from their partners; their heart rates skyrocket and, if they’re confronted with a stressful situation, their heart rates go up even more, and take longer to drop back to normal. But if they’re injected with the brain chemical oxytocin, the voles don’t succumb to the stress of isolation.

Now, Carter is studying what happens to adult prairie voles who are deprived of social bonding, and the brain chemicals involved with it, as babies. Baby voles who are picked up and held just once as babies are better dads than those who are never held at all, Carter said. But if injected with one dose of oxytocin, the voles who were deprived of touch as babies were just as good at parenting as their coddled counterparts.

Carter’s data is powerful evidence of the fact that love – or at least, attachment – is not purely psychological. There’s a chemical component to it, too…at least in the voles.

But that doesn’t mean that the secret to love can be found in a potion – at least not in the oxytocin potions that are sold routinely on the Internet. No one has ever studied what happens to people who take it for long periods of time. “We have no idea what it’s going to be like for people who go around sniffing this stuff,” Carter said.

Photo credit: Purdue News Service


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