Romantic relationships aren’t just matters of the heart, it turns out. It’s really a matter of the brain. Animals’ and humans’ ability to form close connections are influenced by complex chemical reactions in the brain. Sara Freeman, USU assistant professor of biology, has dedicated her career to understanding romance at the molecular level.
Freeman will share her results next Friday in Salt Lake City during USU’s Blue Plate Research speaking series. Her presentation, “Animals to Autism: The Science of Social Bonds,” will discuss how animal relationships might offer a piece of the puzzle to understanding romance, as well as relationship-limiting conditions including autism spectrum disorder.
The event, which will be 11:30 a.m. at Gallivan Hall in Salt Lake City, includes lunch for all attendees and a live question-and-answer session.
While monogamous relationships are the standard in most human cultures, they are uncommon in the animal world. In fact, less than 10 percent of mammals are monogamous.
By studying animals that form these relationships, researchers have discovered that oxytocin plays a significant role. Sometimes known as the “bonding hormone,” oxytocin affects how much attention is paid to social cues, among other things, which naturally assists the development of social bonds.
Freeman compares the brain tissue of various animals and has found animal species that form monogamous relationships such as prairie voles, some primates, and canines show a much larger concentration of oxytocin receptors in key parts of the brain than other animals.
In an episode of Temple Grandin’s How’d You Think of That? podcast, Freeman explained that a lower number of oxytocin receptors could “underlie, potentially, a reduced experience of reward, pleasure, or enjoyment from social interactions.”
The implications extend to people with social disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. After comparing brain tissue, Freeman found lower levels of oxytocin receptors in the reward area of the brain in individuals with autism.
Finding answers to research questions is not an easy task and often requires years of work and a significant amount of problem-solving.
“I think we don't give the sciences enough credit for the creativity required to be successful and to be really innovative,” Freeman said during the podcast interview. "If you think about the STEM fields, we are creating new knowledge, we are generating information, and we're doing so in a way that relies a lot on troubleshooting.”
In addition to her research efforts, Freeman was recognized as the Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentor of the Year in 2022 for incorporating her students in her work.
Those interested in attending the Blue Plate Research presentation event can RSVP at blueplateresearch.usu.edu.
Blue Plate Research highlights the discoveries and research efforts at USU in the areas of health and well-being, with a focus on sharing easy-to-understand research with Utah health advocates, statewide stakeholders and the public.
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