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Psychologist receives NSF grant to study the social brain

15 Sep, 2023

Alexander Ophir, associate professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, has received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study mating tactics in mammals, with a focus on the prairie vole, to learn about the underlying neural sources of social behaviors.

“Across vertebrates, males use a diversity of tactics to gain access to reproductive females, and these tactics may be associated with variation in sociability,” Ophir writes. “This project proposes that understanding new and distinct mating tactics that emerge in some males requires understanding the interaction of brain-behavior relationships that underlie high sociability (known as prosocial behavior) and selective social behavior that leads to pairbonding.

“By exploring brain-behavior relationships of these two social behaviors, the project aims to understand the neural sources for behaviors that can only be studied by indirectly exploring the neural sources of other behaviors within the social brain.”

Studying prairie voles, a socially monogamous species where pairbonded males vary in sexual fidelity in spite of maintaining strong pairbonds, these studies aim to shift thinking about the function of the social brain. The project will train undergraduates in research techniques and engage them in community outreach to elementary school-aged children.

In his research, Ophir works to understand the proximate control of social behavior and the ultimate consequences of these behaviors. His lab uses classic field and laboratory techniques in combination with modern molecular tools to examine the roles of specific brain regions in coordinating social recognition and diverse attributes of temperament related to attachment, aggression and care-giving.


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