“Omnia vincit amor,” wrote the poet Virgil over 2,000 years ago at the end of a collection of bucolic poetry, the first recorded instance of the phrase “love conquers all.” Important context is that this moment was not actually triumphant: In the eclogue, the heartbroken speaker is bemoaning an unrequited love.
This bold statement about the power and beauty of love strikes a cultural chord, something that we all would like to believe to be true. Now we know for sure that this is true: Prairie voles. The fact that they were lacking a biological receptor to the “lovehormone” was not a problem in their ability to bond with their mates and produce pups. They also did remarkably well at nurturing their young. This research was published on Jan. 27 in the journal Neuron.
Unlike similar species, prarie voles mate for life. It was thought that oxytocin plays a crucial role in encouraging monogamy within the species.
“We were all shocked that no matter how many different ways we tried to test this, the voles demonstrated a very robust social attachment with their sexual partner, as strong as their normal counterparts,” Devanand Manoli, a psychiatry researcher at the University of California, San Francisco who led the research, said in a press release.
Previous studies that injected voles with hormones or drugs to increase or reduce their oxytocin levels had demonstrated that a vole lacking oxytocin would not be able to form bonds with their partner. Manoli and his colleagues claim that these experiments were done on adults whose brains may not have been affected by oxytocin. Additionally, drugs can be “dirty,” Manoli said, as they may have off-target effects on a slew of pathways and inadvertently introduce active compounds other than oxytocin that may affect voles’ behavior.
In contrast, Manoli and his colleagues used CRISPR, a tool that allows researchers to edit the genetic code, to snip out a portion of the gene that codes for the oxytocin receptor in vole embryos, rendering it useless. Prairie voles that do not produce this receptor would not be able to recognize and respond to the presence of oxytocin–so if oxytocin was the make-or-break for spousal and parental love, one would expect to see loveless vole marriages and neglected litters. But on the contrary, the researchers observed that pair-bonding behaviors, nursing, and pup weaning occurred in prairie voles lacking this receptor. These findings suggest an inverted truth, which will need to be confirmed by follow-up research. If a prairie vole’s ability to react to oxytocin doesn’t prevent them from developing social attachments, then giving the living animal extra oxytocin might not cause bonding to occur where it wasn’t before.
“For at least the last 10 years, people have been hoping for the possibility of oxytocin as a powerful therapeutic for helping people with social cognitive impairments due to conditions ranging from autism to schizophrenia,” Manoli said. “This research shows that there likely isn’t a magic bullet for something as complex and nuanced as social behavior.”
Now that the researchers have created voles lacking the oxytocin receptor, Manoli said that he hopes the animals can be used in future experiments to study the origin of anxiety and attachment, as well as to act as a comparison with other often-studied organisms like mice.
The voles found true love in an otherwise hopeless situation. This is a strong endorsement for the power and beauty of love.
The article A Wild New Research Casts Doubt about the True Role Nature’s “Love Hormone ‘ appeared originally on The Daily Beast ..