Emory University's Yerkes National Primate Research Center researchers found that mice-like prairie voles are capable of showing empathy when fellow voles are distraught. The study can be useful in better understanding and creating treatments for psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The brain chemical oxytocin is linked to social bonding and maternal nurturing in humans. Researchers discovered that oxytocin also acts in a brain of the rodents the same way as with humans, which enable the animals to have consoling behaviors.
This consoling behavior is strongest among voles that they are familiar with. The team didn't find the same social behavior in the prairie vole's close relative, the meadow vole.
"Scientists have been reluctant to attribute empathy to animals, often assuming selfish motives. These explanations have never worked well for consolation behavior, however, which is why this study is so important," said co-author Frans de Waal, Ph.D., who first observed consolation behavior among animals by studying how chimpanzees comfort victims of violence in 1979.
The brain's anterior cingulate cortex is activated when animals detect distress in others. The same brain region is triggered when humans observe pain in others. The prairie voles respond to other's distressed nature by increasing their social contact with them. This has successfully reduced the other's level of anxiety.
In the experiment, the authors tried blocking the oxytocin signals in the anterior cingulate cortex, which caused the prairie voles to stop consoling others in distress. Burkett and Young suggested that oxytocin can help ASD patients improve their social engagement.
ASD is a developmental disorder that causes many challenges, including communication and social skills. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 68 children have been diagnosed with ASD.
In most cases, there are often no physical attributes that set people with ASD apart. However, ASD patients often behave, socialize, learn and communicate differently.
ASD patients' thinking, learning and problem-solving capabilities varies between gifted and severely challenged. Before, conditions such as pervasive developmental disorder, autistic disorder and Asperger syndrome were diagnosed separately. Now, these conditions fall under the autism spectrum disorder.