The oxytocin system promotes resilience to the effects of neonatal isolation on adult social attachment in female prairie voles

Transl Psychiatry. 2015 Jul 21;5(7):e606. doi: 10.1038/tp.2015.73.


Genes and social experiences interact to create variation in social behavior and vulnerability to develop disorders of the social domain. Socially monogamous prairie voles display remarkable diversity in neuropeptide receptor systems and social behavior. Here, we examine the interaction of early-life adversity and brain oxytocin receptor (OTR) density on adult social attachment in female prairie voles. First, pups were isolated for 3 h per day, or unmanipulated, from postnatal day 1-14. Adult subjects were tested on the partner preference (PP) test to assess social attachment and OTR density in the brain was quantified. Neonatal social isolation impaired female PP formation, without affecting OTR density. Accumbal OTR density was, however, positively correlated with the percent of time spent huddling with the partner in neonatally isolated females. Females with high accumbal OTR binding were resilient to neonatal isolation. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that parental nurturing shapes neural systems underlying social relationships by enhancing striatal OTR signaling. Thus, we next determined whether early touch, mimicking parental licking and grooming, stimulates hypothalamic OT neuron activity. Tactile stimulation induced immediate-early gene activity in OT neurons in neonates. Finally, we investigated whether pharmacologically potentiating OT release using a melanocortin 3/4 agonist, melanotan-II (10 mg kg(-1) subcutaneously), would mitigate the social isolation-induced impairments in attachment behavior. Neonatal melanotan-II administration buffered against the effects of early isolation on partner preference formation. Thus, variation in accumbal OTR density and early OT release induced by parental nurturing may moderate susceptibility to early adverse experiences, including neglect.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn / physiology
  • Animals, Newborn / psychology*
  • Arvicolinae / physiology*
  • Arvicolinae / psychology
  • Female
  • Gene Expression / physiology
  • Object Attachment
  • Oxytocin / physiology*
  • Peptides, Cyclic / pharmacology
  • Receptors, Melanocortin / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / physiology
  • Resilience, Psychological
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Isolation* / psychology
  • Vasopressins / physiology
  • alpha-MSH / analogs & derivatives
  • alpha-MSH / pharmacology


  • Peptides, Cyclic
  • Receptors, Melanocortin
  • Receptors, Oxytocin
  • Vasopressins
  • melanotan-II
  • Oxytocin
  • alpha-MSH