Emory University LogoResearchers from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University have shown that early life nurturing seems to have an impact in later life relationships. They were believed to have made use of prairie voles as a model in order to understand the neurochemistry of social behavior.

Prairie voles are known to be small, highly social, hamster-sized rodents which frequently form stable, life-long bonds between mates. In the wild, there appears to be a remarkable diversity in how offspring are nurtured.

For instance, some pups seemed to be reared by single-mothers while some seem to be raised by both parents with the father providing much of the same care as the mother and some are taken care in communal family groups.

Researchers Todd Ahern, a graduate student in the Emory University Neuroscience Program, and Larry Young, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Yerkes Research Center and Emory University were noted to have compared pups raised by single mothers (SM) to pups raised by both parents (BP). This comparison was done in order to determine the effects of these types of early social environments on adult social behavior.

“Our findings demonstrate that SM- and BP-reared animals experienced different levels of care during the neonatal period and that these differences significantly influenced bonding social behaviors in adulthood,” says Ahern.

“These results suggest naturalistic variation in social rearing conditions can introduce diversity into adult nurturing and attachment behaviors. SM-raised pups were slower to make life-long partnerships, and they showed less interest in nurturing pups in their communal families,” says Young.

The findings further revealed differences in the oxytocin system. Oxytocin is believed to be best known for its roles in maternal labor and suckling. However, in recent times, oxytocin seems to have been tied to prosocial behavior, such as bonding, trust and social awareness.

Ahern further stated that, “Very simply, altering their early social experience influenced adult bonding.”

Researchers anticipate that future studies may be able to look at the altered oxytocin levels in the brain in order to determine how these hormonal changes affect relationships.

The findings have been published in the journal, Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.