Researchers learn about lovesickness from rodents

A group of reseachers led by Larry Young, a psychiatry professor at Emory University’s Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, in Atlanta, have some interesting findings on the causes of lovesickness.  They studied prairie voles, one of the few animals that generally practices lifelong monogamy, and discovered changes in brain chemistry when a prairie vole is separated from its mate.  (See “Brain Chemical Could Spur Lovesickness“)

Young and his group examined the brains of a variety of adult male voles. Some of the voles had lifelong female partners, while other hadn’t had time to form such bonds and were best acquainted with brother or sister voles.

All of the voles were subjected to brief stress tests, such as a swimming challenge, or being placed in a maze.

“The ones who were [still] with a partner, or had just been separated from a sibling so they never formed a romantic bond in the first place, actively avoided the aversive or stressful situation,” Young noted.

But what about male voles who had been recently separated from a longtime female partner?

These voles “basically were passive — they gave up,” Young said. “I would be hesitant to say that these animals were depressed, but their behavior is reminiscent of what you would see in a depressed person.”

These guys may be able to tell us about romantic love

These guys may be able to tell us about romantic love

The brains of the lovesick voles had heightened activity of a chemical messenger called corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) in an area of the hypothalamus, an area of the brain heavily involved in emotions.  When the researchers administered a drug that blocked CRF activity, the behavioral differences between the voles who’d been separated from their mates and those that were not disappeared.  CRF activity kicked in only when the vole was separated from a longtime female partner, not a sibling companion.

This all suggests a mechanism designed to push mating pairs back together if separated.  It also suggests, according to experts, the possibility of a pharmaceutical fix for lovesickness.

The findings were published on Oct. 15 in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

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