Sara Freeman, Utah State University – Oxytocin, Part One

On Part 1 of 2 of our Oxytocin Series:  Which regions of the brain affect the social behavior of your species?

Sara Freeman, assistant professor in the biology department at Utah State University, goes inside to find out.

I was born in Atlanta, GA, and I received my BS in Biology from the University of Virginia in 2006. I completed my PhD in Neuroscience 2013 from Emory University in Atlanta, GA. From 2013-2019, I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Davis before moving to Utah State to start my faculty position.

Oxytocin, Part One


I study the hormone oxytocin, which is produced in your brain and is classically known for its role in childbirth, where it initiates uterine contractions during labor. In recent decades, researchers have found that oxytocin isn’t just a maternal hormone; it’s also critical for the formation and maintenance of strong social bonds, like the love between two romantic partners or the attachment bond between two adult pair mates of a monogamous animal species.

Hormones like oxytocin function in our bodies by binding selectively to a receptor molecule on a cell. My research focuses on characterizing the locations of oxytocin receptors in the brain in order to establish what parts of the brain are responsible for oxytocin’s profound effects on social behavior across species. Previous work has only characterized oxytocin receptors in rodent brains. My work compared the distributions of oxytocin receptors across the brains of several different species of monkey. I found that the regions of the primate brain that express oxytocin receptors overlap with the circuits of the brain that we know to be involved in visual processing and attention. If you compare this pattern with that of rodents’ brains, you see that the regions of the rodent brain that are high in oxytocin receptors overlap primarily with circuits that processing olfactory signals from the nose. Thus, it seems that over evolutionary time, the brains of these divergent taxa have been shaped so that oxytocin is acting in regions that process incoming sensory information from the sense organ that they primarily use to navigate their social environments: vision for primates and olfaction for rodents.

  1. Anonymous