Empathy is fundamental to human relations, but its neural substrates remain largely unknown. Here we characterize the involvement of oxytocin in the capacity of mice to display emotional state-matching, an empathy-like behavior. When exposed to a familiar conspecific demonstrator in distress, an observer mouse becomes fearful, as indicated by a tendency to freeze and subsequent efforts to escape. Both intranasal oxytocin administration and chemogenetic stimulation of oxytocin neurons render males sensitive to the distress of an unfamiliar mouse. Acute intranasal oxytocin penetrates the brain and enhances cellular activity within the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas chronic administration produces long-term facilitation of observational fear and downregulates oxytocin receptor expression in the amygdala. None of these manipulations affect fear acquired as a result of direct experience with the stressor. Hence, these results implicate oxytocin in observational fear in mice (rather than fear itself) and provide new avenues for examining the neural substrates of empathy.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This research is supported by the Autism Initiative (University of Minnesota) (J.C.G.) and the University of Minnesota’s MnDRIVE Predoctoral Neuromodulation Fellowship (M.T.P.). The authors would like to thank Aidan Peterson and Mike O’Connor for confocal imaging assistance; Amy Young, Parker Roy, and Jewoo Seo for assistance with data collection and video analysis, Michael Saxe and Yan-Ping Zhang for ultrasonic vocalization analysis code, Anders Asp and Erin Larson (MnDRIVE Optogenetics Core, University of Minnesota) for chemogenetic technical assistance, Aleta Svitek and Katherine Faltesek for radiolabeling technical and analytical assistance, and Patrick Rothwell, Mark Thomas, Suma Jacob, Bruce Kennedy, Brian Sweis, and Tatyana Mat-veeva for helpful discussions of the manuscript.