Campus News

Newt Behavior May Offer Insight to Humans

Story posted October 20, 1999

What do men on the prowl and rough-skinned newts have in common? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Richmond Thompson, assistant professor of psychology, has been studying how a certain neuropeptide, vasotocin, affects the mating behavior of these Pacific Northwest newts. Mammals produce an almost identical neuropeptide called vasopressin.

"You have to accept the basic premise that the newt brain is very much like our brain," Thompson said at a recent faculty seminar. He hopes to use the results of his studies to show how the brain interprets social information.

Thompson joined the Bowdoin faculty this year after completing a post-doctoral program in Oregon. He plans to continue his research at Bowdoin using goldfish instead of newts.

Thompson’s experiments showed that vasotocin elicits certain mating behaviors in male rough-skinned newts: The hormone heightened the newts’ reaction to visual cues (spotting another newt) and olfactory cues (smelling female pheromones). It even inspired testosterone-injected female newts to act more like males. (The testosterone alone did not do the trick.)

"This might tie to sexual orientation," Thompson said.

In birds, the hormone causes aggressive behavior; vasotocin stimulates egg laying in fish; and most recently, it was discovered, it may be the hormone that inspires certain voles to remain monogamous.

So what does this mean for us?

Thompson says that there are new theories pointing to the significance of vasopressin levels in human sociopaths. And he recently contacted a Harvard researcher who is working with Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress; the two are planning to consult on that research.

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