Nobel Conference 47 Presenter Profile: Larry J. Young

Posted on July 22nd, 2011 by

Larry J. Young is scheduled to deliver the second lecture at the 47th Nobel Conference at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4.

Most people probably don’t know that prairie voles are monogamous and meadow voles are promiscuous. One might even wonder why anyone would care. But Larry Young’s work in understanding the very slight differences in the brains of voles is already leading to development of novel treatments for autism spectrum disorders. It turns out that the molecules regulating behavior in voles have similar effects in humans, providing Young and his colleagues a way to study the complex interpersonal relationships of our species.

Growing up in rural south Georgia meant not having easy access to college prep schools and classes. But childhood on a farm provided Larry Young with a view of the diversity of nature that a city kid would never know. He was fascinated by the differences between the animals he saw on the farm and in nature in general, and was determined to understand them. He says that if you are persistent, you can make your dream reality. And persistent he was, earning a degree in biochemistry from the University of Georgia in 1989 and going on to get his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in neuroendocrinology in 1994.

During his undergraduate education, he says, he became fascinated with the idea that well-defined biochemical processes control complex biological phenomena, and that many of these processes are determined by an organism’s genes. As a graduate student, he compared the behavior of two different species of lizards and their underlying molecular differences. It was as a postdoc at Emory University that he began investigating the molecular mechanisms affecting social attachment in prairie voles. Like the lizards, different species of voles engage in different behaviors. Prairie voles are monogamous and form lifelong social attachments, while montane and meadow voles are promiscuous breeders and do not form social attachments at all.

Although the vole studies have shown some promise, Young says, “The real progress in understanding the relationships between genes, social experiences, neurological chemicals, and behavior will be made when we translate the vole work into primate studies. We need to go beyond prairie voles and study how brain chemistry affects monkeys, chimps, and humans. And we need to understand the effects that early life experiences have on brain chemistry.”

For example, studies have shown that women who were abused and neglected early in life have lower levels of the hormone oxytocin later in life. Oxytocin is the chemical that promotes social behavior in voles, and apparently in humans. It is also the active ingredient in a product called Liquid Trust, which is being marketed for use in a variety of social situations from dating to company management. “In the long run,” Young says, “we need to understand how the human brain works in order to understand human behavior and to treat neurological disorders. And we need to learn from the differences we observe in nature.”

Young enjoys spending time with his family, watching his children’s soccer games, and taking care of his pets. He says that he has a house full of animals, from parrots and parakeets to aquaria full of fish. Visiting his house must be something like visiting a zoo.

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