Have you noticed that we in the news media are sometimes too eager to catapult from reporting on early animal research to concluding that all our human lives may change as a result? Well I have.
The latest example of this concerns the small rodent known as a prairie vole, and the seminal research being performed on these critters by a top biologist and neuroscientist at the University of Illinois, Chicago by the name of Dr. Susan Carter. Carter has been studying families of prairie voles for several generations. She has discovered that males have a gene that is coded to produce vasopressin, a hormone which seems to stimulate protective behavior and bonding with female voles.
Carter has three very important observations about these male rodents_
1. Prairie voles can be stimulated by their environment as infants to produce more of the bonding hormone, vasopressin. 2. Despite a large release of vasopressin and subsequent bonding behavior, these voles are NOT more likely to be faithful to their mates. So in other words, this may be the bonding gene, but it is NOT the faithful gene, the way the media has wrongly reported it. 3. Montagne Voles, a strain of the critters which lack the gene, do not exhibit the same bonding behavior as other voles, but since they are not extinct, at least some degree of bonding is going on!
Then this past week a Swedish study was published on-line in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and it received a lot of attention. 552 twin pairs were studied and those that had a variant of the vasopressin gene and were presumably not producing much vasopressin were either less likely to be married or were having more difficulty with their marital relationship.
I asked Dr. Carter if she thought the new Swedish study followed from her own work and whether conclusions about human bonding could be drawn. She answered with a single word, "no."
For one thing, Carter's work is careful biology and genetics, following generations of animals. The Swedish study, though it uses genetically similar twins, is observational and is based on questionnaires, a form of study that is notoriously inaccurate and preliminary.
Carter suggests that we at least study primates before jumping to humans.
In the meantime, as we wait for true genetic markers of monogamy to emerge, it remains more important for a woman to learn how to choose a partner who loves her, rather than assembling a checklist.
Dr. Marc Siegel is an internist and associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine. He is a FOX News Medical Contributor and writes a health column for LA Times, where he examines TV and movies for medical accuracy. Dr. Siegel is the author of "False Alarm: the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear" and "Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know About the Next Pandemic". Read more at www.doctorsiegel.com
Marc Siegel MD is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a medical analyst and reporter for Fox News since 2008. His upcoming book concerns a mysterious viral outbreak.