Research Spotlight: An Interview of James Burkett on his 2016 Science Article

By Amielle Moreno

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions on your recent publication for  The Central Sulcus, James. And congratulations! Science is a high impact journal.

Thank you very much!

Dr. James Burkett wearing his hat of voles.

Describe your experience submitting a paper to Science. Compared to other journals, how did their process differ, for better or worse?

It’s extreme science writing. The Science format is terrifyingly short –about 4 pages, or 3 pages without figures. Every line has to convey an enormously vital piece of information. And I had to be confident in every single aspect of the paper – first of all, because it was going to be reviewed by the presiding world experts in my field, but second, because a paper that gets published at that level gets a lot of scientific scrutiny afterward. Plus, I was constantly being reminded about the 95% rejection rate at each step of the process. At the beginning, I was convinced that the most I would get out of submitting would be some expert reviews of my manuscript.

This paper appears to be the culmination of your thesis work. What does it feel like to have years of toil condensed down to four pages?

It was a lot of pressure. There are literally individual sentences that represent more than a year of work. Discussions that could have gone on for pages were condensed to five words. But I ended up loving the short format, actually. It taught me to be essentialist and to write a better story.

Your paper, titled “Oxytocin dependent consolation behavior in rodents” uses the pair-bonding behavior of prairie voles as a model for consolation behavior. Would you describe yourself as more of a prairie or meadow vole?

Prairie vole.

Would you ever lie to a reporter?


Interesting. In this study, one partner of a pair-bonded prairie vole couple was removed from the home cage to experience stress via shock or no shock, then returned to the cage to “demonstrate” an amount of anxiety and distress-like behavior, while the other partner “observed” the returned partner. When was the last time you cried?

Hodor 😦

The visual representation of the feeling one gets while reading a reviewer’s notes on your submitted publication. Image from sbnation.

That must have been difficult for you. Were you pair-bonded with any rodents who were available for licking and grooming (“allogrooming”) consolation?

I had my wife with me, but to be honest we focused more on hugging rather than licking and hairstyling.

I ask because in your paper, allogrooming was interpreted as an affiliative form of contact. When the demonstrator experienced the shock condition and was returned to their partner, the time then spent allogrooming increased. This appears to have two possible causes: the observer initiating allogrooming to comfort a distressed demonstrating partner, or the demonstrator soliciting comforting touch to ease its distress. How did you determine that it was indeed the former and not the latter?

This is a very insightful and delicate question. In fact, we don’t know for certain whether the stressed partners solicit grooming from the observers. However, we do know that consolation is not just a response to a stimulus or a signal – observers experience vicarious anxiety and stress in the presence of the stressed demonstrator, and have brain activation consistent with vicarious pain. We also know that observers only console individuals they are familiar with, which wouldn’t be expected if they’re just trying to get the stressed individual to stop doing something they don’t like. Observers are having physiological, behavioral and neural responses consistent with an empathetic response.

Pair-bonding frenzy. Image from Imgfave.

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) showed significantly higher levels of FOS-positive cells in observers exposed to a stressed partner. When an oxytocin receptor inhibitor is injected into the ACC of observers before the consolation test, the increase in partner-directed grooming was abolished. Tell me, James, why doesn’t my mother love me?

Umm … I’m not sure, let’s go ask my collaborator in the Psychiatry Department. Once a week for 50 minutes.

You postulate that oxytocin signaling within the anterior cingulate might modulate consolation through “physiological, emotional, and or behavioral responses.” Would you expound on that, because obviously Science wasn’t going to give you the space to?

This is one of those points where five words replaced a paragraph. Basically, we observed that blockade of oxytocin receptor signaling in the ACC, or throughout the brain, completely prevented the observer’s consoling response. However, we don’t really know if the treatment prevented the observer from noticing the partner’s distress, prevented them from “feeling” it or “caring” about it, or directly blocked their motivation or ability to mount a prosocial response. Separating out those different possibilities would have required a lot more experiments, which would all have been very interesting but I wanted to graduate.

The prelimbic cortex (PLC) and nucleus accumbens (NACS) of observers exposed to stressed demonstrators have no more f#@*s to give. Image from Science.

Consolation behavior could be considered empathy-based. You might already be aware, certain professions are associated with higher rates of psychopathy, a diagnosis frequently characterized by a lack of empathy. Please comment on the likely functionality of CEO’s and Lawyer’s anterior cingulate cortices.

This is really fascinating. Scott Lilienfeld in the Psychology Department does a lot of research on the “successful psychopath.” A lot of professions require people to suppress their empathy and emotional responses in order to be successful, which is easier if you have lower empathy in the first place. Surgeon is a classic example – they need to suppress their natural emotional response in order to cut into a patient, a technique they call “cognitive reappraisal.” A CEO that is sensitive to the situations and emotions of the thousands of employees below them might be great as a boss, but he or she won’t necessarily be great at transferring wealth into the hands of shareholders, which is the CEO’s real job. So, psychopaths may be naturally better at these jobs, or having these jobs makes you a little more psychopathic, or both.

A quick shot of intranasal oxytocin, or an AAV overexpressing oxytocin receptors in the ACC, might make these people nicer to be around – but probably worse at their jobs.

I’m not going to call you back after our date, because I can’t feel. Image from ACTIFIT.

Could oxytocin receptor antagonist injections to the ACC be a model for psychopathy? And if so, could it explain my mother’s behavior?

I honestly think this is one of the more exciting possibilities for this research. The primary defining characteristic of psychopathy is a lack of empathy for others. By learning more about the biological mechanisms that guide empathy, we can learn more about how they can go wrong in disorders like psychopathy, and possibly how to treat them.

And about your mother, let’s ask that collaborator in Psychiatry. He has an opening Thursdays at 3. Bring your insurance card.

Do you remember a particularly entertaining run of your experiment?

Near the end of my experiments, Kerry Ressler left for Harvard, taking all the equipment I had been using with him. I absolutely had to run a few more experiments that required a fear conditioning chamber, so I cobbled a conditioning chamber together from random parts he left behind. Then I literally had to have someone stand outside the testing room with a hand timer, play tones from YouTube, and flip a switch to deliver shocks.

Dr. Ressler dropping the “H-bomb” on Emory. Image from Wikimedia.

You conclude your paper by proposing that consolation behavior in prairie voles indicates that consolation doesn’t require advanced cognitive capacities. Could it also be the case that scientists have underestimated the cognitive abilities of nonhuman animals?

My coauthor, Elissar Andari (also my wife), will be very happy to hear that you asked that! She criticized that part of the manuscript as saying, “voles are too dumb to have cognitive empathy.” When I wrote that, I was actually addressing a longstanding theory in animal psychology that suggested that consoling responses were only observed in “large brained” species because they had to be sophisticated enough to understand the situation and mental state of the distressed animal. It is not currently thought that “small brained” rodents have that level of sophistication, but other experiments on rescuing behavior in rats (and even in ants!) may soon turn that assumption on its head. Coauthor Frans de Waal also just published a book, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”, where he argues that science has a long, misguided history of judging animal intelligence based on their ability to understand and solve human-like problems.

How might we request a correction to your “acknowledgments” section so that it thanks me personally for assisting with your microscope needs?

Oh. Well. This is awkward. I just remembered, I suddenly have somewhere I need to be.

Thank you again for your time, James and congratulations on your recent success!

Thank you! And, um, say hi to your mom for me?

I sure will.

Check out the publication here.


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