The neural mechanism of in-group favoritism in rat prosocial behavior

Summer 2016

Stella Chen : Molecular and Cell Biology, Psychology

Mentor: Daniela Kaufer

Prosocial behavior is rooted in empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Humans, like many other animals, have been shown to process the pain of in-group and out-group members differently, reflecting strong empathic bias towards oneā€™s own group. Encouragingly, research suggests that positive social interactions with an outgroup member leads to increased empathy for the out-group. Previous research with rats in a helping behavior test has demonstrated that rats will perform prosocial behaviors, such as releasing conspecifics trapped inside a restrainer, and will do so specifically for in-group members. This proposal aims to study the neural mechanisms responsible for the social selectivity of this behavior.

I hypothesize that oxytocin, a hormone that plays a large role in social bonding, plays a key role in producing prosocial motivation, through its effects on regions of the brain involved in motivation and reward. Preliminary work that I have participated in has focused on finding the brain regions of the rat equivalent of empathy for a trapped cagemate. Previous trials have been done with a cagemate, or a stranger of a different strain. I am planning on adding a condition where the two different strains are housed together, so I can compare how social experience can affect the neural activity. I will be artificially activating brain regions of interest, in hopes of inducing these prosocial behaviors in situations where they normally would not manifest.

Research has been an important part of my life and is something I would like pursue as a career. I would like to thank the Pergo Foundation and SURF L&S for supporting me and giving me the opportunity to work full-time this summer. This experience will greatly help me develop as a scientist, and prepare me for a career in research.