|Path Home: Empathy, Altruism and Agape | Presenters or Itinerary
This paper develops a strategy for investigating the cellular and molecular substrates of monogamy. Monogamy is a form of social (as opposed to sexual) organization found in perhaps 3% of mammals. Monogamous mammals usually exhibit pair bonds as well as high levels of parental care in both males and females. Various species of voles, mouse-like rodents, have been classified as monogamous or non-monogamous based on both field and lab studies. We have studied the prairie vole, a monogamous species that forms a lifelong pair bond after copulation. Two peptide hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin are released with copulation in most mammals. Monogamous and non-monogamous voles differ, not only in social behavior, but also in the pattern of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in their brains. In monogamous voles, oxytocin and vasopressin facilitate pair bonds in animals that do not mate and antagonists for these hormones block pair bond formation in animals without reducing mating behavior. In non-monogamous species, these hormones do not enhance social behavior, presumably because the receptors are not located in the appropriate brain pathways in these species. Recent work has focuses on the molecular mechanisms by which these receptors are expressed in different pathways in closely related species. In monogamous voles, we have discovered variations in the promoter regions of the genes for both oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. Gene transfer studies demonstrate the importance of these promoter differences for the neuroanatomical pattern of expression and the behavioral responses to these hormones. Apparently, these regions of the genome are highly variable. Although the origin of these DNA sequence differences remains unknown, the characteristics of the vasopressin receptor promoter are consistent with insertion of a retrovirus. Monogamy may have evolved from a retroviral infection that altered the neuroanatomical pattern of receptor expression, leading to changes in behavior which in specific socio-ecological conditions were adaptive, resulting ultimately in species with different social organization.
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