Early experience in humans is associated with changes in neuropeptides critical for regulating social behavior

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005 Nov 22;102(47):17237-40. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0504767102.


The formation of social attachments is a critical component of human relationships. Infants begin to bond to their caregivers from the moment of birth, and these social bonds continue to provide regulatory emotional functions throughout adulthood. It is difficult to examine the interactions between social experience and the biological origins of these complex behaviors because children undergo both brain development and accumulate social experience at the same time. We had a rare opportunity to examine children who were reared in extremely aberrant social environments where they were deprived of the kind of care-giving typical for our species. The present experiment in nature provides insight into the role of early experience on the brain systems underlying the development of emotional behavior. These data indicate that the vasopressin and oxytocin neuropeptide systems, which are critical in the establishment of social bonds and the regulation of emotional behaviors, are affected by early social experience. The results of this experiment suggest a potential mechanism whose atypical function may explain the pervasive social and emotional difficulties observed in many children who have experienced aberrant care-giving. The present findings are consistent with the view that there is a critical role for early experience in the development of the brain systems underlying basic aspects of human social behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child Abuse
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events*
  • Male
  • Neuropeptides / physiology
  • Neuropeptides / urine*
  • Neurophysins / physiology
  • Neurophysins / urine
  • Oxytocin / physiology
  • Oxytocin / urine
  • Protein Precursors / physiology
  • Protein Precursors / urine
  • Social Behavior*
  • Socialization
  • Vasopressins / physiology
  • Vasopressins / urine


  • AVP protein, human
  • Neuropeptides
  • Neurophysins
  • Protein Precursors
  • Vasopressins
  • Oxytocin