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Scientists Look to Prairie Vole Brains to Understand Monogamy

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Neuroscientists studying prairie voles have identified circuits in the brain’s reward center that may be a key part of forming social connections. They published their study today in the journal Nature.

Monogamous relationships, or pair bonds, are a lot less common than you’d think, arising in fewer than 5 percent of mammal species, including us and prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster). What makes us so dang determined to stick with just one other person (or vole)? And what prompts us to latch onto them in the first place?

It’s kind of hard to tell. Human pair bonding is notoriously difficult to study, says co-lead author Elizabeth Amadei of Emory University’s Silvio O. Conte Center for Oxytocin and Social Cognition. “As humans, we know the feelings we get when we view images of our romantic partners,” she said in a statement, "but, until now, we haven't known how the brain's reward system works to lead to those feelings and to the voles' pair bonding."

Scientists love prairie voles. They especially love prairie vole love—or at least the behaviors and brain chemistry that look like love to us. The voles are touchingly tender with one another, grooming, mating, and snuggling their partners until death does them part.

Previous studies have suggested that these intense connections may begin with hormones like oxytocin and dopamine swirling around the brain’s reward system. To learn more, the authors of the current study installed tiny probes in female prairie voles’ brains—the rodent neural version of a wiretap. They then paired the lady voles with males and left the couples alone to get to know each other a little better.

The neural wiretaps told a story of complex interactions between different regions of the female voles’ brains. As the ladies began to bond with their assigned dudes, a flurry of information was exchanged between their prefrontal cortices and nucleus accumbens, areas associated with decision-making and rewards, respectively.

The strength of these circuits varied by vole and seemed to influence her relationship. The stronger a vole’s connections were, the faster she started huddling with her partner. The reverse was also true: The more the two voles bonded, the stronger the neural connections became.

To further test their hypothesis, the researchers plopped lady voles down with new males, but only for a short period of time—not long enough to get attached and mate. During the voles’ brief date, the scientists sent a tiny pulse of light to the brain circuit in question, giving it a little boost. The next day, despite barely knowing the males they met the day prior, the light-pulsed ladies were significantly more likely to choose them over voles they’d never met. Just a little zap had been enough to kick off their courtship.

"It is amazing to think we could influence social bonding by stimulating this brain circuit with a remotely controlled light implanted into the brain," co-lead author Zack Johnson said in a statement.

Some caveats, of course: This study was on prairie voles, who are decidedly not people, and it only included female subjects. We couldn’t tell you what’s going on in those vole boys’ brains.

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The Surprising Link Between Language and Depression
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Skim through the poems of Sylvia Plath, the lyrics of Kurt Cobain, or posts on an internet forum dedicated to depression, and you'll probably start to see some commonalities. That's because there's a particular way that people with clinical depression communicate, whether they're speaking or writing, and psychologists believe they now understand the link between the two.

According to a recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science, there are certain "markers" in a person's parlance that may point to symptoms of clinical depression. Researchers used automated text analysis methods to comb through large quantities of posts in 63 internet forums with more than 6400 members, searching for certain words and phrases. They also noted average sentence length, grammatical patterns, and other factors.

What researchers found was that a person's use (or overuse) of first-person pronouns can provide some insight into the state of their mental health. People with clinical depression tend to use more first-person singular pronouns, such as "I" and "me," and fewer third-person pronouns, like "they," "he," or "she." As Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Reading and the head of the study, writes in a post for IFL Science:

"This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words."

What remains unclear, though, is whether people who are more focused on themselves tend to depression, or if depression turns a person's focus on themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with depression also use more negative descriptors, like "lonely" and "miserable."

But, Al-Mosaiwi notes, it's hardly the most important clue when using language to assess clinical depression. Far better indicators, he says, are the presence of "absolutist words" in a person's speech or writing, such as "always," "constantly," and "completely." When overused, they tend to indicate that someone has a "black-and-white view of the world," Al-Mosaiwi says. An analysis of posts on different internet forums found that absolutist words were 50 percent more prevalent on anxiety and depression forums, and 80 percent more prevalent on suicidal ideation forums.

Researchers hope these types of classifications, supported by computerized methods, will prove more and more beneficial in a clinical setting.

[h/t IFL Science]

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The ‘Scully Effect’ Is Real: Female X-Files Fans More Likely to Go Into STEM
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FBI agent Dana Scully is more than just a role model for remaining professional when a colleague won't stop talking about his vast governmental conspiracy theories. The skeptical doctor played by Gillian Anderson on The X-Files helped inspire women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, according to a new report [PDF] from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which we spotted at Fast Company.

“In the world of entertainment media, where scientists are often portrayed as white men wearing white coats and working alone in labs, Scully stood out in the 1990s as the only female STEM character in a prominent, prime-time television role,” the report explains. Previously, anecdotal evidence has pointed to the existence of a “Scully effect,” in which the measured TV scientist—with her detailed note-taking, evidence-based approach, and desire to autopsy everything—inspired women to seek out their own science careers. This report provides the hard data.

The Geena Davis Institute surveyed more than 2000 women in the U.S. above the age of 25, a significant portion of whom were viewers of The X-Files (68 percent) and women who had studied for or were in STEM careers (49 percent). While the survey didn’t ask women whether watching Dana Scully on The X-Files directly influenced their decision to be a scientist, the results hint that seeing a character like her on TV regularly did affect them. Women who watched more of the show were more likely to say they were interested in STEM, more likely to have studied a STEM field in college, and more likely to have worked in a STEM field after college.

While it’s hard to draw a direct line of causation there—women who are interested in science might just be more inclined to watch a sci-fi show like The X-Files than women who grow up to be historians—viewers also tended to say Scully gave them positive impressions of women in science. More than half of respondents who were familiar with Scully’s character said she increased their confidence in succeeding in a male-dominated profession. More than 60 percent of the respondents said she increased their belief in the importance of STEM. And when asked to describe her, they were most likely to say she was “smart” and “intelligent” before any other adjective.

STEM fields are still overwhelmingly male, and governments, nonprofits, schools, activists, and some tech companies have been pushing to make the field more diverse by recruiting and retaining more female talent. While the desire to become a doctor or an engineer isn’t the only thing keeping STEM a boy’s club, women also need more role models in the fields whose success and accomplishments they can look up to. Even if some of those role models are fictional.

Now that The X-Files has returned to Fox, perhaps Dana Scully will have an opportunity to shepherd a whole new generation of women into the sciences.

[h/t Fast Company]

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