Doctor Thomas Insel discusses the importance of two neuropeptides - oxytocin and vasopressin - in relation to attachment and social bonding.
I really grew up trying to understand social behavior; kind of looking at what oxytocin and vasopressin, two neuropeptides and their receptors, did in a range of different species. And we were very interested in the prairie vole and related voles because they had different patterns of social organization. They had different patterns of these neuropeptide receptors and we thought can we figure out how those things fit together? Is there something about where the receptors are in the brain that will lead us to understanding how the social organization evolved? I don’t do that anymore; I kind of miss it, it’s a fascinating place to be because it is one of those areas where you can do comparative studies and at the same time you can drill down – you can go from behavior to brain systems to understanding what cells are involved and see how it’s all driven by very subtle differences in gene sequence. It’s a lovely story and it’s one that I think may provide some really good insights about how genomic variation is manifest, ultimately, in behavioral changes that are the result of evolution. It’s a beautiful story for that.
But I really enjoy it mostly from afar. I’m a cheerleader, I like to see this work happen. I like to see it happen in other species as well. I think the big shift in that area over the last 5 years – I left the field about 5 years ago and handed off a laboratory to some very talented junior people that have done great things that I would have never done has I stayed there, so it’s actually grown in wonderful ways. But one of the things that is happening increasingly is people are taking these same questions into humans, and saying, ‘Well now that we have candidates, can we look at the vasopressin receptor gene in humans?' If you gave vasopressin or oxytocin to humans and you studied what’s happening in their brains with neuroimaging, can you see changes about brain functioning that are related in any way to behavior? Do these neuropeptides actually affect human behavior in any way relevant to what we saw in mice and voles and rats and others have seen in lizards and fish? The preliminary data are quite interesting. It’s difficult to do this with the precision we have in other organisms but in humans, just a first pass of the neuroimaging data looks pretty intriguing. Maybe there is a way in which this oxytocin, as the first example, seems to facilitate human trust and changes the way that you evaluate another person within a social context.
vasopressin, oxytocin, prairie vole, brain systems, neuropeptides, social behavior, attachment, bonding, thomas, insel