Researchers at the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience (CTSN) at Emory University are focusing on prairie voles as a new model to screen the effectiveness of drugs to treat autism. They are starting with D-cycloserine, a drug Emory researchers have shown enhances behavioral therapy for phobias and also promotes pair bonding among prairie voles. Giving female voles D-cycloserine, which is thought to facilitate learning and memory, can encourage them to bond with a new male more quickly than usual. The results were published online on April 8, 2011, and will appear in a future issue of Biological Psychiatry. "The prairie vole model has enabled us to learn about complex neural pathways in social areas of the brain," says senior author Dr. Larry Young. “We believe these insights will be useful in identifying drugs that enhance social cognition and learning. Drugs with these properties, particularly when combined with behavioral therapies, may be beneficial in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders." Dr. Young is division chief of Behavioral Neuroscience and Psychiatric Disorders at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, William P. Timmie professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Emory CTSN. He and his colleagues have been studying the prairie vole for more than 15 years as a model to explore the neurobiology of prosocial behaviors, including cooperation, compassion, bonding, and social reciprocity. Now, they are hoping to identify drugs that can enhance social learning in individuals with autism spectrum disorders, and they think the process of pair bonding in the prairie vole may be a useful tool for identifying new therapies.
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