The Longing Lab

Neuroscientist Zoe Donaldson on romantic pair bonds & what yearning looks like in the brain

June 29, 2023 Amanda McCracken Season 2 Episode 13
The Longing Lab
Neuroscientist Zoe Donaldson on romantic pair bonds & what yearning looks like in the brain
Show Notes

Episode 13: Award-winning neuroscientist Zoe Donaldson explains her research on how romantic bonds in prairie voles are encoded in the brain. She specifically looks at what happens the moment a prairie vole decides to reunite with its partner over another.

Dr. Zoe Donaldson is an Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder where she is the recipient of the NIH New Innovator and the NSF CAREER awards, among others. She joined the faculty after completing a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Emory University and pursuing post-doctoral training at Columbia University. She studies how close social bonds, such as those that mediate friendships and romantic love, are encoded in the brain. In order to understand the cells and molecules that make bonding possible, her lab uses monogamous prairie voles. Unlike rats and mice, these rodents forms lifelong pair bonds between mates akin to human romantic partnerships. By examining the neurobiology underlying these bonds and what happens when they are lost, she hopes to identify novel treatments for psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. This interview takes place in her office (apologies in advance for less than ideal sound quality) following a tour of her lab.

Learn more about Dr. Donaldson through her lab or here

In this episode, (in order) we talked about…

*Desire versus motivation 

*The role of the nucleus accumbens (part of the brain involved in choices) in longing

*Why prairie voles are used for their ability to create lifelong bonds with their mating partners

*Why her lab compares friendships to romantic partner bonds in voles

*What’s happening in the brain when a prairie vole decides to run to reunite with its partner over a different vole

*One scientist studying the genetics of cheating prairie voles vs faithful ones

*How her 1st opportunity to design her own experiment contributed to her interest in studying motivation in the brain

*What happens in the voles’ brain when they aren’t given access to their partner

*The debate on pathologizing grief

*What if we could train our brain to adapt better to grief just as we can to overcome phobias



“Longing is the motivation to have something what you want you can’t have immediately.”

“The stronger the bond, the more cells that are active as they are making that decision to approach their partner.” 

“Instead of asking, 'Is it stressful to lose your partner?' because the answer is yes, let’s focus on what makes grief different that any other stressful or traumatic experience."

“The National Institute of Health defines loss as a state of deprivation from a motivationally significant person or thing.”

“We can grieve things we never had.”

“Yearning is the core feature of grief….And we know that biologically, there is something specifically different about yearning because the behavioral therapies and pharmacotherapies that are efficacious in treating major depression don’t do anything to touch yearning related symptoms and grief. "

“Yearning is a state of frustration that emerges from having a desire that is unfulfilled.”

“They start to get dopamine released when they press the lever, in anticipation of the reward they are about to get. They get more dopamine released when they reunite with their partner than they do with the novel vole. So, there’s some part of the brain that says, your partner is really rewarding, you get extra dopamine when you try to reunite with them.”

“I don’t think love addiction is a medically relevant term, but there are instances when attachments can become unhealthy.”