The focus of this course is on research aimed at understanding the neural mechanisms that mediate mammalian social and emotional behavior. The first part of the course will focus on pair-bonding, an aspect of social behavior important for mating and parental behavior. In some species, such as prairie vole and human, mating can lead to life-long pair-bonding. The neural mechanisms that mediate pair-bonding have been studied extensively in voles, and recent research suggests that human monogamy may depend on similar mechanisms. The second part of the course considers the nature of emotions and their neural mechanisms. Animal research laid the foundations for this field, but human brain imaging methods, e.g. fMRI, led to a rapid increase in studies of the neural basis of human emotions. Emotions guide much of human social behavior, thus the neural mechanisms of emotion and social behavior are closely linked and often overlapping. Recent studies demonstrating the importance of oxytocin for human social behavior will be considered in detail.
There is no textbook. Readings will include review papers and research reports.
The image is a coronal section through the prairie vole brain. Pair-bonding in this monogamous species depends on mating-induced release of oxytocin in the female and vasopressin in the male. This section shows some of the sites where these neuropeptides act. Blue indicates oxytocin receptors, red vasopressin receptors. Oxytocin and vasopressin produce bonding by activating reward circuits. During mating, the odors of the mate are paired with activation of reward circuits. This results in a long-lasting conditioned preference for the odors of the individual mate.