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He-Men Can Have A Heart

By John Salak


Those looking for some positive social interaction, heck maybe even a cuddle, don’t generally think about getting up close and personal with some guy jacked up on testosterone. Perhaps they should think again.

Apparently, this he-man hormone can foster friendly, prosocial behavior in males. It may even encourage some gentle cuddling if a new animal study conducted by neuroscientists at Emory University is on the money.

“For what we believe is the first time, we’ve demonstrated that testosterone can directly promote nonsexual, prosocial behavior, in addition to aggression, in the same individual,” reported Aubrey Kelly, the study’s first author. “It’s surprising because normally we think of testosterone as increasing sexual behaviors and aggression. But we’ve shown that it can have more nuanced effects, depending on the social context.”

The university research also uncovered how testosterone affects the neural activity of oxytocin cells—the so-called “love hormone” that is associated with social bonding.

The study’s leaders acknowledged previous research showed that testosterone enhances aggressive behavior. However, they wanted to examine whether it might also have the capacity to do something more radical by promoting positive social responses when it is contextually appropriate.

The team tested this possibility by working with Mongolian gerbils, which form lasting pair bonds and raise their pups together. Males can become aggressive during mating and in defense of their territory, they also exhibit cuddling behavior after a female becomes pregnant. They also demonstrate protective behavior toward their pups.

It is generally assumed that the increase in pro-social behavior among males was the result of a drop in testosterone levels after mating. The research team tested this idea by injecting a new dose of the hormone into the males and surprisingly found friendlier gerbils on their hands.

“Instead, we were surprised that a male gerbil became even more cuddly and prosocial with his partner,” Kelly said. “He became like ‘super partner.'”

The jacked-up gerbils even became unusually friendly to other males dropped into their cages. “Normally, a male would chase another male that came into its cage, or try to avoid it,” Kelly says. “Instead, the resident males that had previously been injected with testosterone were more friendly to the intruder.”

This good behavior admittedly had its limits. A second dose of testosterone did bring many of these males back to their less-than-social selves. “It was like they suddenly woke up and realized they weren’t supposed to be friendly in that context,” Kelly reported. “It appears that testosterone enhances context-appropriate behavior. It seems to play a role in amplifying the tendency to be cuddly and protective or aggressive.”

Humans are clearly more complicated than gerbils. But the insights gained from these little guys could help open social gateways for humans.

“Our hormones are the same, and the parts of the brain they act upon are even the same,” added Richmond Thompson, the study’s co-author. “So, learning how hormones like testosterone help other animals adjust to rapidly changing social contexts will not only help us understand the biological nuts and bolts that affect their behavior but also predict and ultimately understand how the same molecules in human brains help shape our own responses to the social world around us.”

Ultimately, all this could lead to more huggable he-men.

 

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