Love In The Time Of Voles: Why A CU Scientist Is Studying These Monogamous Mammals

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Photo: Vole
A bank vole in the Sonian Forest in Brussels, Belgium.

Love and loss are two of the most fundamental human emotions. But why do we grieve when we lose a partner, and why do some struggle more than others to recover?

CU Professor Zoe Donaldson is trying to figure that out, but not by studying people. Instead she is researching a tiny, monogamous rodent: the vole. It may seem outlandish, but Donaldson has cred -- she just landed $1.5 million from the National Institutes of Health for her work.

Donaldson works with a colony of 100 prairie voles. Only 3 to 5 percent of all mammals are monogamous, a category that includes us and voles. Donaldson's team separates bonded pairs and gives the remaining vole a lever to press. As a control, some of the voles are reunited with their partners when they pull the lever, the others will not.

Each vole has a tiny microscope planted in its head. Donaldson can then observe what neurons are firing when a vole presses the lever to see their mate, and which ones go off when the animal realizes there won't be a reunion.

It sounds sad, but Donaldson says her work could be a lifesaver for people paralyzed by grief. When a person is unable to return to a normal routine and lifestyle after losing someone, it's called "complicated grief." Donaldson hopes one day her research will lead to the development of new therapies and medication to help restart a stalled grieving process.