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Front Neuroendocrinol. 2002 Apr;23(2):200-24.

The neuroendocrine basis of social recognition.

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Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia 30322, USA.


All social relationships are dependent on an organism's ability to remember conspecifics. Social memory may be a unique form of memory, critical for reproduction, territorial defense, and the establishment of dominance hierarchies in a natural context. In the laboratory, social memory can be assessed reliably by measuring the reduction in investigation of a familiar partner relative to novel conspecifics. The neurohypophyseal neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin have been shown to influence a number of forms of social behavior, including affiliation, aggression, and reproduction. This article reviews vasopressin and oxytocin effects on social cognition, particularly the acquisition and retention of social recognition in rats and mice. Studies in rats have demonstrated that vasopressin in specific neural pathways, such as the lateral septum, is necessary for social recognition. As vasopressin facilitates recall when given after an initial encounter, the peptide appears important for the consolidation not the acquisition of a social memory. Although oxytocin has complex effects on social memory in rats, mice with a null mutation of the oxytocin gene are completely socially amnestic without other cognitive deficits evident. As oxytocin given centrally before but not after the initial encounter restores social recognition in these mutant mice, the neuropeptide appears critical for the acquisition rather than the consolidation phase of memory. Oxytocin's effects on social memory are mediated via a discrete cell population in the medial amygdala. These findings support the hypothesis that vasopressin and oxytocin are essential for social memory, although they appear to influence different cognitive processes and may modulate different neural systems.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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