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From animals to autism: the science of social bonds

 USU neurobiologist Sara Freeman holds a coyote brain in her lab at USU
Nichole Bresee
USU neurobiologist Sara Freeman holds a coyote brain. She presents 'The Science of Social Bonds: From Animals to Autism' at Science Unwrapped Friday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m. on the USU campus and online. All are welcome.

“Some people ask me, does studying the biology of love take the...mystery out of it? And for me, it doesn't, I think, being able to show that science is part of our everyday lives, and that there's actually something really wonderful about our bodies that allow us to have this really sort of difficult to identify feeling for another person. It kind of makes it even more wonderful.”

That was Dr. Sara Freeman. She is a social Neurologist in the Department of Biology at USU and studies the circuits of the brain that are responsible for social bonding, pair bonding and attachment between individuals in a diverse group of monogamous animal species.

“If we can find out that these systems apply across a broad, diverse family of mammals, rodents, primates,... then you know we might really be onto something to find out about..the core of the social brain.”

Freeman explains how studying the complex neurochemistry of social and pair bonding in animals can allow us to understand how neurological circuits work for humans. These discoveries may provide insight on human psychiatric conditions that are characterized by deficits and social behavior.

“Individuals with autism are certainly capable of falling in love, and experiencing love and feeling's mostly about the ability to navigate complex social information.”

Work is currently underway to decipher how social hormones of the brain, like oxytocin, may vary in neurodivergent individuals, which could contribute to how they process social signals.

“Oxytocin is believed to act in the brain to make social stimuli more salient. Individuals with autism often report being overwhelmed by eye contact, or hugs or large groups of's possible that they're getting sensory overload in the like, social input coming into the brain.”

Sara Freeman will present her research at Friday night’s Science Unwrapped series at 7:00.

The online event is open to the public and will be live-streamed through AggieCast.

Colleen Meidt is a science reporter at UPR as well as a PhD student at Utah State University. She studies native bees in the Mojave Desert and is particularly interested studying the conservation status of the Mojave Poppy Bee. In her free time, Colleen enjoys photography and rock climbing in the canyons.