prairie voles

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When prairie voles find a mate, they stay together for life. Not only that, but an experiment showed that they console one another. During the experiment, a group of prairie voles were shocked with electricity while their mates watched. When they were reunited, the prairie vole that watched their mate be shocked would lick them. It was noted that it wasn’t an act of grooming but offering support.

Falling in Love!!

Hello, brain people!

Love!! What on earth happens to your brain as you fall in love? There are three stages that we all go through as we fall in love with that special somebody: Lust, Attraction, Attachment

During Lust, sex hormones are released - this being oestrogen and testosterone in women and men respectively.

Throughout Attraction, you feel all wonderful and love-stricken! You can’t think of anything other than that special somebody. There are three main neurotransmitters that are involved in this stage, with each type acting within a specific pathway in the brain. These neurotransmitters are: Adrenaline (Epinephrine), Dopamine, and Serotonin.

Epinephrine is released during your body’s “stress response”, making your blood levels of adrenaline and cortisol increase. This means that even meeting with that somebody can make your heart race, as you also start to sweat. How lovely!

Dopamine is closely related to our brain’s “appetite system”, the system that is active whilst we are craving something. Dopamine stimulates “desire and reward”, and does this by triggering a rush of pleasure! This has a very similar affect to cocaine on the brain! Love is a drug!

Serotonin is an anti-depressant, and may also explain why, when falling in love, your love stays on your mind.

Finally, we have attachment! This is the tight bond that keeps couples together long enough for them to raise children. Yet again, we have chemicals to thank for this! These are: oxytocin and vasopressin.

Oxytocin, the cuddle hormone :), is a very powerful hormone released by men and women during orgasm, and is said to deepen the feelings of attachment between the couple, making them feel much closer to each other. As the theory goes, the more sex that the couple has, the deeper the connection they feel for one another. Sounds good to me! :) 

Vasopressin is an anti-diuretic hormone that works with your kidneys to control thirst. Although little is known about the affects of this hormone, when male prairie voles were given a drug that suppresses the effect of vasopressin, the bond with their partner fell apart immediately, as he then would fail to protect his partner.

So go out there! Bump into a complete stranger, tell them about yourself, and fall in love! :)

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Scientific Pokédex!

If love is in the air today, Luvdisc won’t be far away. This heart-shaped fish pokémon seeks out and swims after couples in love. But how does it find them?

Many fish, surprisingly enough, have a keen sense of smell. Salmon quite literally sniff their way back to the river they were born in during mating season. Other fish will sniff out immune system genes before picking potential mates. And sharks, of course, can detect one drop of blood in one million drops of water, and smell it over a quarter mile away. 

It comes from having two nostrils: The fish will compare the smell (or concentration) of whatever its smelling, and will turn in the direction that has a larger concentration of the odorant. We have two nostrils that do the same, but perhaps it’s easier to think of it like your ears. By picking which ear has the louder sound, humans are able to locate the source of the sound. Sharks, salmon, and luvdisc do the same for smell.

But this, of course, leads to the question of what is it, exactly, that luvdisc is smelling? As it turns out, that happiness, cuddliness, lustfulness and all of those feelings associated with love can be tracked through chemicals called hormones. For example:

  • Lust and sex drive is driven primarily by testosterone and estrogen.
  • Dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline are behind the happy, energetic initial attraction in love. Dopamine can also be triggered by many addictive drugs, and is responsible for feelings of pleasure. Serotonin is associated with happiness, and is thought to be responsible for why that person keeps showing up in your thoughts. Adrenaline causes your heart to race, your palms to sweat, and gives you a rush of energy.
  • Finally, long-term attachment and bonds are formed through chemicals such as oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is a powerful chemical that strengthens romantic bonds as well as parental bonds. Female rats injected with oxytocin, for example, would start protecting and cuddling other females’ baby rats. Vasopressin is also important in long-term bonds. When the male in a prairie vole couple was given a drug to suppress vasopressin, he almost immediately lost all devotion to his partner and failed to defend her from new suitors.

So Luvdisc can detect at least one of these hormones, and when it smells it in the water it will swim after it. Perhaps luvdisc can absorb these hormones, which give it the same feelings of happiness that the source experiences. It would be in small concentrations, but would possibly give luvdisc the same chemical “high” as an addictive drug which also trigger these hormones. In any case, luvdisc is a strange pokémon to say the least, but one appropriate to analyze on Valentine’s Day.

Luvdisc can smell “love” hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin in the water, and will follow these smells to their source.

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Winter is a great time to photograph birds of prey in Colorado, including bald eagles, American kestrels and northern harriers. Many raptors migrate to Colorado in the winter from Canada and Alaska because of our mild winters. Warmer temps and longer hours of warm Colorado sunlight mean less snow cover in open fields and open water on lakes and rivers. Leaves are gone from the trees so you can easily spot them on their perches. They hunt for food, such as mice, voles, prairie dogs and insects (in the case of the kestrels) most of the day. When the weather is bad, the birds will hunker down into a tree or hang out on a perch and wait for the weather to pass. When it does, get the camera ready - they are hungry and will be out hunting.

Gene switches make prairie voles fall in love

Epigenetic changes affect neurotransmitters that lead to pair-bond formation.

Love really does change your brain — at least, if you’re a prairie vole. Researchers have shown for the first time that the act of mating induces permanent chemical modifications in the chromosomes, affecting the expression of genes that regulate sexual and monogamous behaviour. The study is published today in Nature Neuroscience.

Prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) have long been of interest to neuroscientists and endocrinologists who study the social behaviour of animals, in part because this species forms monogamous pair bonds — essentially mating for life. The voles’ pair bonding, sharing of parental roles and egalitarian nest building in couples makes them a good model for understanding the biology of monogamy and mating in humans.

Previous studies have shown that the neurotransmitters oxytocin and vasopressin play a major part in inducing and regulating the formation of the pair bond. Monogamous prairie voles are known to have higher levels of receptors for these neurotransmitters than do voles who have yet to mate; and when otherwise promiscuous montane voles (M. montanus) are dosed with oxytocin and vasopressin, they adopt the monogamous behaviour of their prairie cousins.

Because behaviour seemed to play an active part in changing the neurobiology of the animals, scientists suspected that epigenetic factors were involved. These are chemical modifications to the chromosomes that affect how genes are transcribed or suppressed, as opposed to changes in the gene sequences themselves.

Love potion

To look for clues of epigenetic agents at play in monogamous behaviour, neuroscientist Mohamed Kabbaj and his team at Florida State University in Tallahassee took voles which had been housed together for 6 hours but had not mated. The researchers injected drugs into the voles’ brains near a region called the nucleus accumbens, which is closely associated with the reinforcement of reward and pleasure. The drugs blocked the activity of an enzyme that normally keeps DNA tightly wound up and thus prevents the expression of genes.

The team found that the genes for the vasopressin and oxytocin receptors had been transcribed, and as a result the nucleus accumbens of the animals bore high levels of these receptors. Animals that had been permitted to mate also had high levels of vasopressin and oxytocin receptors, confirming the link between bond formation and gene activity.

“Mating activates this brain area which leads to partner preference — we can induce this same change in the brain with this drug,” Kabbaj explains.

Interestingly, the injection alone cannot induce the partner preference. “The drug by itself won’t do all these molecular changes — you need the context: it’s the drug plus the six hours of cohabitation,” says Kabbaj.

“This is a study I myself wanted to do years ago,” says Thomas Insel, who heads the US National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. “If mating causes the release of the neuropeptide, how does this kick into a higher gear for the rest of the animal’s life? This study for me really is the first experimental demonstration that the epigenetic change would be necessary for the long-term change in behaviour.”

“This paper really shows that there is an epigenetic mechanism underlying pair bonds — we ourselves have looked for that and not found it,” says Alaine Keebaugh of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who also studies the neuroscience of prairie voles.

Kabbaj says he hopes that the work could ultimately lead to an enhanced understanding of how epigenetic factors affect social behaviour in humans — not only in monogamy and pair bonding, but also in conditions such as autism and schizophrenia, which affect social interactions.

“Chug! Chug! Chug! Chug!” – all of Mr. Vole’s friends

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While they may look like cute little fur-covered turds, the North American rodent known as the prairie vole harbors a deep and dark secret that would shame most humans: Its species is seemingly comprised solely of competitive alcoholics, which is bad news for all vole spouses out there but fantastic news for social scientists wanting to research the nature of peer pressure and social drinking.

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The Chemistry of Love

Love has inspired timeless songs and sonnets — not to mention a few less-than-timeless romantic comedies. Now the chemistry of love is the subject of our latest Reactions episode! The video explains how feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin fuel lifelong pair bonds in prairie voles, which — along with humans — are the mammalian kingdom’s leading monogamists.

“If you block oxytocin receptors, you can totally cut off that pair-bonding response,” explains Abigail Marsh, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University. “People who excite romantic feelings in us also probably trigger increases in oxytocin, which results in an increase in dopamine, and then we find that person someone we want to stick with.” In the video, Marsh also explains that addictive drugs affect the brain in ways similar to love — which helps explain the painful, withdrawal-like symptoms of heartbreak.

via Reactions.