A recent study found that oxytocin, a brain chemical for maternal nurturing and social bonding, acts in the same part of the brain for prairie voles and humans to promote consoling behavior.

Observing another animal in distress causes and activation of the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that is also activated when humans feel empathy. The prairie voles responded to the stimulation by increasing their social contact which reduced anxiety in the other vole. When the signaling of oxytocin was blocked by the authors, the animals no longer showed sympathy with others.

A new research suggests that prairie voles can show empathy to other voles. Credit: The Verge

This could mean a significant implication for understanding and treating psychiatric disorders in which detecting and responding to emotions of others can be disrupted, including autism disorder (ASD) and schizophrenia, as published by Emory University in the U.S.

The study was published in this week’s issue of Science by Larry Young, PhD, and James Burkett, PhD, as co-authors. This is the first time this behavior is shown in small-brained species.

According to the authors, the research suggests that oxytocin may improve social engagement in ASD. The results could help explore the neural mechanisms of the previously unrecognized consolation behavior in laboratory animals, placing greater emphasis on research into the brain systems underlying empathy.

Prairie voles are similar in some ways to humans in their social behavior, they form lifelong, monogamous bonds and provide bi-parental care for their young. The experiment found that the rodent shows an empathy-base consoling response to others voles in distressed.

The first time empathy had been proved in an animal was in 1979 by Frans de Waal, PhD. She observed how chimpanzees provide comfort to victims of aggression. The present study has significant implications by confirming the “emphatic nature of the consolation response,” said de Waal.

“Scientists have been reluctant to attribute empathy to animals, often assuming selfish motives. These explanations have never worked well for consolation behavior, however, which is why this study is so important,” added de Waal.

Source: Emory University