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Science grant awarded to study link between genes, behavior

08/16/2006

The prairie vole may hold a key to better understanding the link between genes and social behavior in mammals, including humans.

The National Science Foundation has awarded Miami University Hamilton (MUH) a $390,000 research grant to study the short-tailed rodent, which is about the size of a mouse.

"Prairie voles are socially monogamous, which is unusual among mammals. They typically mate for life. Field and lab studies show that males display numerous behaviors associated with monogamy including paternal care," said Brian Keane, MUH professor of zoology who co-authored the grant proposal and will administer the research project.

Previous lab studies suggest that variations in social attachment among prairie voles might be due in part to genetic differences in a single gene that codes for a receptor in the brain. This receptor binds a specific chemical messenger called vasopressin. Scientists know that vasopressin is involved in regulating complex social behaviors such as recognition, aggression and affiliation in mammals including humans, Keane explained.

"In the lab, male prairie voles with longer versions of this gene spent much more time in contact with their female partner, compared to an unfamiliar female, relative to males with shorter forms of the gene. These data are intriguing because they suggest that size differences in the gene coding for the vasopressin receptor affect social behavior and possible mate fidelity among male prairie voles," he said.

"The gene regulates the number and locale of vasopressin receptors in the brain. It appears that the more receptors in particular parts of the brain, the more monogamous the behavior."

The research project, "Investigation of Genes and Complex Social Behavior under Ecologically Relevant Conditions," will be led by Keane and Miami zoologists Nancy Solomon (Oxford campus) and Paul Harding (Middletown campus) assisted by graduate and undergraduate Miami zoology students.

Until now, all studies looking at the affect of this gene on social behavior have been conducted on captive animals in laboratory settings, which tend to be highly artificial and may not accurately reflect what happens in the real world, Keane said.

The Miami research will be the first to examine the effect of differences in this gene on behaviors associated with monogamy in nature. Field studies will be conducted on experimental populations of prairie voles at Miami's Ecology Research Center in Oxford, and on natural populations in Illinois and Kansas.

It is hoped the research will shed new light on how genetic differences among individuals affect social behavior in the real world.

Scientists speculate that since the same gene is in humans, differences in it may influence human behavior as well. For example, mutations in this gene are found in individuals with autism, a disorder in which afflicted people have difficulty with social attachment, bonding and interaction.

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