This is a guest post in our #NPGsfn11 blog series and posted on behalf of Zen Faulkes.
Browsing through the Neuroscience poster session, I was stopped by an unusual title. Almost all the posters around me featured mice, but I spotted “vole” in the title of this poster. I had to find out why these scientists zigged when all the others zagged.
The presenter, A.M. Anacker, had a great answer. Prairie voles are well known for pair bonding. This is the vole equivalent to going steady or marriage. This has been the subject of some very elegant neuroethology, which was partly responsible for the rise in people’s awareness of oxytocin.
This lab was trying to use the vole’s monogamous pair bonds to test for the potential effects of alcoholism on social relationships.
“I’m guessing your hypothesis is that the effect of alcohol on relationships will be bad.” They replied that they didn’t necessarily hypothesize that. I was thinking about severe alcohol use, but the presenter pointed out to me that in humans, alcohol has a reputation as a social lubricant. I couldn’t help but to think of the B.A.N.T.E.R. party later that evening.
The behavioural test was straightforward. Male and female voles were allowed to pair bond (how romantic!). The animals were then allowed to drink alcohol in their cages after the pair formed (I think.) Each animal was basically given a free run of the bar; the experimenters just let them drink as much as they wanted. They also provided the voles with water, so they didn’t have to drink just alcohol.
Then, a potential new and strange partner was introduced to the tipsy little vole. Each animal was tested to see whether it preferred the individual it had previously pair bonded with, or if it spent any time with the interloper.
In female voles, alcohol did not disrupt the previously formed pair bond. The females continued to affiliate with the old familiar faces.
In male voles, alcohol did disrupt the pair bond. The inebriated males showed no preference for the familiar female over the new female. This is perhaps good news for the established females; it suggests to me that maybe the males are just not able to discriminate, rather than actively seeking out new partners.
With such an interesting sex difference, the team is gung ho to find the underlying neural basis of why the males and females are having such different responses to the alcohol. They’ve tested several hypotheses, but nothing has popped out yet.
This is the point in the show where normally someone would ask whether there were any human implications. It is fun to think of parallels and joke about it. But that that this sort of study wasn’t done in mice is a reminder of species differences. If you have to do this experiment in voles because it couldn’t be done in mice, which are similar in many ways, extending the findings to humans will be even trickier.
I was definitely a winner at poster lotto. This was a great little story, and I was glad I stopped.
And the moral is: Even at the biggest scientific meeting in the world – it’s important not to plan out your entire time in advance. One of the major advantages to meeting in physical space is to stumble upon something cool that you normally wouldn’t look for.
Associate Professor, Department of Biology, The University of Texas-Pan American
Zen Faulkes studies the evolution of behaviour and nervous systems. He blogs at NeuroDojo, Better Posters, hosts Marmorkrebs.org, and is @DoctorZen on Twitter. He is a #SciFund Challenge participant, and would love it if you checked out his project, Doctor Zen and the Amazon Crayfish.