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Genes Brain Behav. 2003 Aug;2(4):220-30.

Impaired discrimination of and aversion to parasitized male odors by female oxytocin knockout mice.

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Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Program, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada.


A major cost of social behavior is the increased risk of exposure to parasites, with animals utilizing social information to recognize and avoid infected conspecifics. In mice, females can discriminate between infected and uninfected males on the basis of social cues, displaying aversive responses to the odors of infected males. In the present study, using female mice whose gene for oxytocin (OT) has been selectively deleted (OT knockout mice (OTKO)), we show that at least one normal allele for OT is required for the mediation of the recognition and avoidance of parasitized males. Female wild type (OTWT) and heterozygous (OTHZ) mice distinguished between the odors of individual males infected with the louse, Polyplax serrata, and uninfected males while the KO mice did not. Exposure to the odors of infected males induced analgesia in OTWT and OTHZ females, with OTKO females displaying attenuated analgesia. OTWT and OTHZ females, but not the OTKO females, also distinguished between the odors of novel and familiar infected males and modulated their analgesic responses on the basis of prior familiarity. In an odor choice test, OTWT and OTHZ females displayed a marked initial choice for the odors of uninfected males, whereas the OTKO females showed no consistent choice. This impairment was specific to the odors of infected males. OTKO females displayed normal analgesic responses to another aversive social odor, that of a stressed male, and an aversive non-social odor, that of a cat. The OTKOs had normal non-social olfactory memory, but were impaired in their social odor memory. These findings indicate that a normal OT gene comprises an essential part of the central recognition mechanism whereby females can both reduce the transmission of parasites to themselves and select for parasite-free males.

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