Prairie voles feel empathy just like human beings, experts have recently concluded, in a study featured in the journal Science on Thursday, January 21.
The experiment was led by James Burkett, Frans de Waal and Larry Young, at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
De Wall had previously detected empathetic responses among primates back in 1979. He was the first to observe a phenomenon known as animal consolation, through which creatures reach out to other members of their group in order to comfort and support them during difficult moments.
For instance, chimpanzees assist and reassure those that have been injured or hurt, by hugging or kissing them. Now, it appears that similar behaviors are also common among rodents, researchers having identified them when analyzing prairie voles.
These small animals, scientifically known as Microtus ochrogaster, are normally spread across grasslands from Canada and the United States, their habitat stretching from West Virginia to the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains.
The voles live for a year or two and are usually monogamous, mating for life and sharing responsibilities when it comes to caring for their offspring or building nests.
They are also known as highly social creatures, grouping themselves into colonies and displaying almost human-like behavior. For instance, they are often seen bonding together or even indulging in mutual grooming.
Now, by investigating the neural mechanisms behind these processes, scientists have revealed that prairie voles actually feel empathy, and that’s the reason why they too exhibit consolation behavior.
More precisely, when the mice witness another fellow rodent being exposed to low-intensity shocks or vexing sounds, a segment of their brain, known as the anterior cingulate cortex, is stimulated more than usual.
The same phenomenon actually occurs among human beings also, whenever they gaze at someone who’s physically hurt or in distress.
Once this brain region is galvanized, oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland. The hormone, which has long been associated with mother-infant bonding and has been known to increase pleasure derived from social interactions, immediately influences the prairie voles’ behavior.
Namely, the animals instantly and instinctively try to alleviate the suffering of their mates, by brushing and licking their fur so as to lower their anxiety levels.
Researchers have tested this observation by blocking oxytocin from being discharged in the voles’ brains, and just like clockwork, the rodents no longer displayed any sort of consolation behavior.
Based on these findings, study authors are now arguing that emotional empathy isn’t just a trait characteristic of humans or primates.
Instead, it may actually be far more common than previously thought, being encountered among rodents and possibly among other creatures from the animal kingdom as well, without requiring a high level of intelligence or advanced cognitive abilities.
These recent observations are also giving hope to researchers that they will be able to help devise treatments for medical conditions such as schizophrenia and autism.
Given that these disorders usually entail an inability to understand or to react to emotions exhibited by others, by mimicking oxytocin release mechanisms identified in voles it may be possible to allow patients to feel empathy once again, in order to interact more easily with others.
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