BEACON TRANSCRIPT – Empathy can no longer be construed purely as a human trait. It would seem that many animals are capable of displaying different degrees of empathy towards their kin in need. A team of scientists has recently discovered that prairie voles can console their buds in distress, much like humans do when someone is stressed.
Recent research in animal psychology has uncovered many interesting aspects about the animal’s social behavior. Up until now, scientists have only discovered traces of this behavior in larger primates and in dogs. But it seems that there are more creatures out there who are capable of sharing their sympathy towards someone in need.
It may not hold such complexity as in humans, but the mechanism is still there, and the scientists seem to have discovered a part of a behavioral trigger that could help them better understand why humans suffering from mental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder are incapable of feeling empathy.
The team of researchers which made this astounding discovery hails from the Yerkes University. Doctor Larry Young, the study’s co-author and one of the scientists working for the Yerkes University Center for Primate research, declared that this is the first time they were able to identify the finer details of such a mechanism outside primates or canines.
Experimenting with prairie voles, a species of rodents, the doctor and his team of researchers has identified the outline of a behavioral mechanism which allows one rodent to feel sympathetic towards another rodent which is in distress or in peril. According to the team’s observation, this kind of behavior doesn’t only encompass the members of a family.
Lab observations have determined that a prairie vole can exhibit the same consoling manner for a total stranger if they are locked in the same cage.
Prairie voles can console their buds in distress just like humans do. Moreover, it would seem that this is the first time that scientists were able to demonstrate such behavior outside larger primates, dogs, and crows.
The experiment itself holds a crucial importance in the area of behavioral sciences. After they’ve managed to induce this state of mind in a lab rodent, the team took a closer look at the vole’s brain. Using an MRI scanner, Young, and his team have discovered that when a rodent exhibits signs of empathy, the anterior cingulate cortex begins to light up.
According to their observation, this mechanism is similar to what happens inside of the human brain when he see someone in pain. Moreover, oxytocin, a peptide-like hormone found inside the brain of mammals seems to play a key role in the vole’s ability to show empathy. By blocking the actions of this hormone, the prairie vole no longer feels the need to console another in distress.
This discovery holds great importance because it seems that not all voles share this knack for empathy. For instance, the researchers have determined that the prairie vole’s closest relative, the meadow vole, is not capable of consoling someone in need.
The fact that prairie voles can console someone in distress may seem like a rather mundane fact, but researchers could use the notes on the little rodents in order to devise more targeted therapies against certain neurological disorders such as autism or even schizophrenia.
Larry Young also said that it might be possible to reverse such a state in someone suffering from autism, by using a combination of oxytocin enhancers and behavioral therapy.