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The Neuroscience of Comforting Behavior in Times of Distress

Oxytocin and the anterior cingulate cortex regulate empathy-based comforting.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Oxytocin and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) work in tandem to promote consolation behaviors.
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Living in an era when terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and extreme weather events seem to dominate the headlines can be highly distressing for all of us. Luckily, the world of neuroscience offers some promising news about human nature—and the compassion of animals—during times of distress.

Recently, researchers at Emory University identified the key components of consolation behaviors in both humans, and animals, by studying prairie voles. Until now, the display of consolation behavior towards others in distress was believed to be unique to humans, great apes, and other large-brained mammals.

Using the prairie vole to study empathy gave researchers a newfound ability to pinpoint the exact neurobiological mechanisms underlying consolation behaviors. The January 2016 study, “Oxytocin-Dependent Consolation Behavior in Rodents,” was published in the journal Science.

Empathy-Based Consolation Behavior Is Not Uniquely Human

Tom Gowanlock/Shutterstock
Comforting others in distress is not uniquely human.
Source: Tom Gowanlock/Shutterstock

The researchers define consolation as, “calming contact directed at a distressed individual.” For example, primates calm others with a kiss and embrace, whereas prairie voles groom other prairie voles in distress. Empathetic human beings typically comfort someone in distress with a hug, soothing caress, or loving touch.

The new study on consoling behaviors by researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University is groundbreaking for two reasons:

Firstly, the researchers identified that the widely studied laboratory rodent, the prairie vole (microtus ochrogaster), shows an empathy-based consoling response when other prairie voles are in distress. This is the first time researchers have identified consolation behavior in a rodent. These findings dismantle the long-standing belief that the ability to empathize with the distress of others—and to behave in ways that provide comfort and relief—is unique to humans and great apes.

Secondly, this is the first study to identify the specific neural systems that drive empathy-based comforting behaviors. The researchers were able to directly pinpoint the neural mechanisms tied to maternal nurturing in the prairie voles' brain. Having proof that there are universal neurobiological underpinnings of empathy and compassion that don't rely on higher intelligence or complex cognition is a revolutionary discovery.

This study has important implications for helping us better understand and treat psychiatric disorders in which detecting and responding to the emotions of others can be disrupted. It could also lead to more effective treatments for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and help identify ways to defuse antisocial, aggressive, and psychopathic behaviors.

The Anterior Cingulate Cortex and Oxytocin Partner During Consoling Behaviors

Geoff B Hall/Wikimedia Commons
Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) in yellow.
Source: Geoff B Hall/Wikimedia Commons

Prairie voles are notorious for maintaining lifelong, monogamous bonds, and providing bi-parental care for their offspring. For this study, the researchers found that when another prairie vole was in distress it activated the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in a cagemate.

The ACC is a brain region that is also activated when humans witness another person suffering emotional or physical pain.

However, when the scientists blocked oxytocin signaling specifically in the anterior cingulate cortex of prairie voles, the animals no longer consoled others in distress. Oxytocin is commonly referred to as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone because it is well-known for playing a role in maternal nurturing, social bonding, and falling in love.

Consolation behaviors have the power to reduce stress hormones. The unstressed prairie vole partner increased its grooming of his or her stressed partner. Interestingly, the unstressed partner matched the stressed partner in his or her stress hormone response, which suggests a neurobiological empathy mechanism.

Prairie voles also match the fear response, anxiety-related behaviors, and corticosterone increases of the stressed cagemate. The researchers found that exposure to a stressed cagemate increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex stating that, "the oxytocin receptor antagonist infused into this region abolishes the partner-directed response, showing conserved neural mechanisms between prairie vole and human."

Conclusion: Oxytocin May Be an Effective Autism Treatment

In December 2013, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “Can Oxytocin Improve Brain Function in Children With Autism?” based on reports from a Yale School of Medicine study that a single dose of the hormone oxytocin, delivered via nasal spray, can enhance brain activity while processing social information in children with autism.

According to co-authors Larry Young, Ph.D., and James Burkett, Ph.D., their recent findings on consoling behaviors in prairie voles suggest that oxytocin may improve social engagement and empathetic capacity for those with ASD.

In a press release, Young concluded, "Many complex human traits have their roots in fundamental brain processes that are shared among many other species. We now have the opportunity to explore in detail the neural mechanisms underlying empathetic responses in a laboratory rodent with clear implications for humans.”

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