Understanding the Instinctive Drive for Social Interactions

NOMIS Research Project

Central to the human experience, people crave social interactions and invest considerable amounts of time and energy fostering social bonds. By contrast, social isolation leads to a wide range of detrimental mental and physical outcomes. Strikingly, the inability to engage in fruitful social interactions is one of the most debilitating aspects of mental illness, such as autism, depression, and schizophrenia. Similarly, social isolation in animals leads to abnormal brain activity and behaviors, suggesting that social interaction is a fundamental need in animal and human lives. To date, how this need is generated and regulated by specific brain activity remains largely unknown.

Our project, Understanding the Instinctive Drive for Social Interactions, seeks to gain a brain-wide and mechanistic understanding of the neural control of social interactions at the molecular, cellular and circuit levels. We wish to identify the specific neuronal populations engaged in social behavior and define how discrete circuits are connected to each other to ensure proper behavior control. In recent efforts, we uncovered brain-wide circuit mechanisms underlying the control of parental behaviors in males and females and established the first spatially and functionally informed cell-type atlas of the preoptic hypothalamus, a key brain area underlying the control of social behaviors.

In this project, we hope to gain a mechanistic understanding of animal instinctive appetite for social interactions. For this purpose, we will combine molecular, genetic and functional approaches to gain a brain-wide understanding of circuits underlying social need and explore the neural mechanisms governing the emergence of social appetite during development and their interactions with circuits regulating other physiological needs.

The project is being led by Catherine Dulac at Harvard University in Cambridge, US.