Larry Young, Who Studied the Chemistry of Love, Dies at 56

Prairie voles are stocky rodents and Olympian tunnel borers that surface in grassy areas to feast on grass, roots and seeds with their chisel-like teeth, causing migraines in farmers and gardeners.

But for Larry Young, they were the secret to understanding romance and love.

Professor Young, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, used prairie voles in a series of experiments that revealed the chemical process of the pirouette of thrilling emotions that poets have been trying to put into words for centuries .

He died on March 21 in Tsukuba, Japan, where he was helping to organize a scientific conference. He was 56 years old. His wife, Anne Murphy, said the cause was a heart attack.

With their beady eyes, thick tails, and sharp claws, prairie voles aren’t exactly cuddly. But among rodents, they are uniquely domestic: they are monogamous, and males and females form a family unit to raise their offspring together.

“Prairie voles, if you take away their partner, they exhibit depression-like behavior,” Professor Young told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2009. “It’s almost like there’s a withdrawal of their partner.”

This made them ideal for laboratory studies examining the chemistry of love.

In a study published in 1999, Professor Young and colleagues exploited the gene in prairie voles associated with vasopressin signaling, a hormone that modulates social behavior. They stimulated vasopressin signaling in mice, which are very promiscuous.

The headlines were amused. “Gene swapping turns lecherous mice into devoted mates,” declared the Ottawa Citizen. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “Genetic science makes mice more romantic.” » The Independent in London: “Discovery of the “perfect husband” gene”.

Professor Young followed up with further prairie vole studies focusing on oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates contractions during childbirth and is involved in the bond between mothers and newborns.

“Because we knew that oxytocin was involved in the mother-infant bond, we explored whether oxytocin might be involved in this partner bond,” he said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2019.

It was.

“If you take two prairie voles, a male and a female, and this time you don’t let them mate and just give them a little oxytocin, they will bond,” Professor Young said. “So this was our first set of experiments to show that oxytocin was involved in things other than maternal bonding.”

He also injected female prairie voles with a drug that blocks oxytocin, which made them temporarily polygamous.

“Love doesn’t really fly,” wrote Professor Young in “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction” (2012, with Brian Alexander). “The complex behaviors surrounding these emotions are driven by a few molecules present in our brain. It is these molecules, acting on defined neural circuits, that so powerfully influence some of the most important and decisive decisions we have ever made.

Professor Young always warned that prairie voles were not humans (obviously). But in the same way that studies on mice led to medical breakthroughs, he believed his research on prairie voles had intriguing implications.

“Perhaps one day, genetic tests to determine the suitability of potential mates will be available, the results of which could accompany, and even override, our instincts in selecting the ideal mate,” he writes in Nature. He added: “Drugs that manipulate brain systems at will to increase or decrease our love for others may not be far away. »

In recent years, Professor Young was investigating whether increasing oxytocin under certain conditions would help autistic children who have difficulty with social interactions.

Larry James Young was born on June 16, 1967, in Sylvester, a rural town in southwest Georgia. His father, James Young, and mother, Margaret (Giddens) Young, were peanut farmers.

As a child, he had a cow named Bessie.

“It was a really rural way of life,” Ms Murphy said. “His aspiration was to go work at the gas station down the street and become a manager.”

He attended the University of Georgia on a Pell Grant with the intention of becoming a veterinarian. One day, in biochemistry class, he dissected a fruit fly.

“And that’s when he fell in love with genetics and just wanted to understand the genetic basis of behavior,” Ms. Murphy said. “That’s what motivated him for the rest of his life.”

After graduating with a degree in biochemistry in 1989, he earned a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Texas at Austin in 1994, then accepted a postdoctoral position at Emory. He never left academia, eventually becoming division chief of behavioral neuroscience and psychiatric disorders at the Emory National Primate Research Center.

Professor Young married Michelle Willingham in 1985; they later divorced. He married Ms. Murphy, a neuroscientist at Georgia State University in Atlanta, in 2002.

Besides his wife, he is survived by three daughters from his first marriage, Leigh Anna, Olivia and Savannah Young; two stepsons, Jack and Sam Murphy; a brother, Terry Young; and two sisters, Marcia Young-Whitacre and Robyn Hicks.

On the Emory campus, Professor Young was also known as the Love Doctor. He was popular on Valentine’s Day – and not just with Mrs Murphy. Journalists around the world were asking him to explain the chemistry of romance.

One day, he said, there might even be a drug that would increase the desire to fall in love.

“It would be completely unethical to give this drug to anyone else,” he told the New York Times, “but if you are married and want to maintain that relationship, you could yourself take a small booster shot from time to time.”

News Source :
Gn Health

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