Background: Social behaviors in species as diverse as honey bees and humans promote group survival but often come at some cost to the individual. Although reinforcement of adaptive social interactions is ostensibly required for the evolutionary persistence of these behaviors, the neural mechanisms by which social reward is encoded by the brain are largely unknown.
Methods: A combination of viral mediated molecular manipulation, circuit mapping, ex vivo electrophysiology, and behavior in genetically engineered mice techniques were used.
Results: In mice oxytocin (OT) acts as a social reinforcement signal within the nucleus accumbens (NAc) core, where it elicits a presynaptically expressed long-term depression of excitatory synaptic transmission in medium spiny neurons. Although the NAc receives OT receptor-containing inputs from several brain regions, genetic deletion of these receptors specifically from dorsal raphe nucleus, which provides serotonergic (5-HT) innervation to the NAc, abolishes the reinforcing properties of social interaction. Furthermore, OT-induced synaptic plasticity requires activation of NAc 5-HT1b receptors, the blockade of which prevents social reward.
Conclusions: These results demonstrate that the rewarding properties of social interaction in mice require the coordinated activity of OT and 5-HT in the NAc, a mechanistic insight with implications for understanding the pathogenesis of social dysfunction in neuropsychiatric disorders such as autism.