COMPARATIVE SOCIAL NEUROSCIENCE
Research in the Kelly Lab aims to elucidate the mechanisms underlying variation in animal behavior, with a particular emphasis on examining the role of the nonapeptides, vasopressin (VP) and oxytocin (OT), in social behavior. The nonapeptides are highly conserved and are present in some form in all jawed vertebrates. VP and OT play a central role in modulating numerous types of social behavior including aggression, gregariousness, communication, social recognition, anxiety, pair bonding, and parental care. Given the strong conservation of the nonapeptide system over evolutionary time, this system is rife for exploring the evolution of various types of social behavior within and across taxa.
Some of the primary questions addressed in the Kelly Lab include: What are the mechanisms underlying social behavior? How has social behavior evolved over time, and how have relevant neural circuits changed within and across species to allow for the extreme variation in social behavior we see today? What types of environmental influences have an impact on social behavior and the brain? How stable or plastic are social traits within an individual and/or species? What drives animals to live in large groups? How does the brain promote sociality? How does the brain allow animals to rapidly shift their behavior so that they can behave appropriately in dynamic group environments? To answer such questions, the lab uses an integrative approach and combines techniques from behavioral ecology, neuroendocrinology, developmental neurobiology, molecular biology, and genetics to study the mechanisms underlying social behavior.
The Kelly Lab utilizes a comparative approach to understand social behavior. If we are to truly understand the evolution of social behavior, we need to consider the fact that various aspects of social behavior evolved independently many times. Thus, we cannot assume that relevant mechanisms have evolved similarly in all species. In order to build a solid foundation on which we study behavior and the underlying mechanisms, it is important to examine a diversity of species within and across taxa. Doing so will ultimately help us determine the fundamental neural principles associated with the organization of particular social behaviors and how they evolved in relation to the behavioral ecology of an organism. To this end, research in the Kelly Lab examines the neural mechanisms that regulate social behavior in naturalistic contexts and across multiple social species from diverse phylogenetic taxa (e.g., estrildid finches, gerbils, spiny mice).