Deciphering brain oxytocin circuits controlling social behavior

  • Grinevich, Valery V. (PI)
  • Wagner, Shlomo S. (CoPI)
  • Hansel, David D. (CoPI)
  • Buxbaum, Joseph J. (CoPI)

Project Details


Living organisms, particularly mammals, constantly shift between different behavioral states according to their external environment. These shifts are largely regulated by specific molecules, termed "neuromodulators" that convey information to a wide range of brain systems. The mechanisms by which these neuromodulators regulate distinct behavioral states remain enigmatic. One important brain neuromodulator is the neuropeptide oxytocin, which recently became well known for its positive, “pro-social” effects on human social behavior. Oxytocin is synthesized and released by a small number of hypothalamic neurons that send their projections to various forebrain regions, to regulate a plethora of social behaviors ranging from aggression to empathy. Relying on anatomical and physiological distinction between subsets of oxytocin neurons, we hypothesize that these neurons are segregated into functional modules associated with distinct types of social behavior. To test this hypothesis we will focus on one hypothalamic region – the paraventricular nucleus, which is the main source for oxytocin projections throughout the entire brain. We propose a comprehensive multidisciplinary study aiming to identify, analyze and mathematically model functional oxytocin neuronal modules activated during various forms of social behavior. To pursue this hypothesis we will employ a novel genetic technique named vGAIT (virus-mediated genetic activity-induced tagging), which enables tagging and manipulating oxytocin neurons that were active during a given social behavior, ranging from simple social interaction to a complex “human-like” cooperative behavior. Using this technique in freely moving rats, we will explore the activity and connectivity, as well as the intrinsic electrophysiological and molecular properties of activated oxytocin modules at the single-cell level. Building on this information we will develop a computational model of the oxytocin system and investigate the mechanistic principles underlying its function. The unique combination of cutting-edge techniques and approaches will allow an unprecedented insight into the mode of operation of a central brain neuromodulatory system that controls mammalian social behavior. Furthermore, the expected findings will pave the way for the development of interventions directed towards specific pathologies of social behavior in humans.

Effective start/end date1/01/15 → …


  • Human Frontier Science Program


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