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How oxytocin signals regulate behavior

No. 14c3 | 30/03/2015 | by Koh

The neuropeptide oxytocin impacts the nervous system and, thus, regulates human behavior. Valery Grinevich, a researcher at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), wants to uncover the molecular mechanisms underlying this regulation. To this end, Grinevich, who leads the Chica and Heinz Schaller Research Group "Neuropeptides" at the DKFZ, is collaborating with colleagues from the USA, Israel and France. The committee of the international Human Frontier Science Program has now decided to support the project.


All life forms adjust their behavior to environmental conditions. This adjustment is regulated by chemical substances called neuromodulators, which impact the way the nervous system works. One of the best known neuromodulators is oxytocin, a neuropeptide that positively influences human social behavior. Oxytocin is produced by specific neurons of hypothalamus that exhibit projections that reach deep into the forebrain and regulate a large variety of behaviors – from aggression to empathy.

Dr. Grinevich and his coworkers now plan to find out at the molecular level how oxytocin leads to particular behavioral patterns. Their theory is that the oxytocin-producing neurons form various functional modules that are associated each with a specific social behavior.

The researchers are evaluating this theory in a specific region of hypothalamus called paraventricular nucleus where most projections of the oxytocin-producing neurons originate. In experiments with rats, they use a new molecular-biological technique to label and visualize individual of these neurons that are activated during a specific social behavior. Their goal is to analyze and create a mathematical model of the interaction of modules that regulate a specific social behavior.

Project leader Grinevich collaborates in this project with research groups led by Josef Buxbaum (New York), David Hansel (Paris) and Shlomo Wagner (Haifa).

The international Human Frontier Science Program was established in 1989 with the aim of supporting transnational outstanding projects in the area of life sciences. The organization will finance the collaborative project of Grinevich and his colleagues for a three-year period with annual funds of $450,000. The grant has been awarded in a highly competitive selection process where only 21 out of initially 1011 project ideas have been selected for grants.

Grinevich studied in Kursk, St. Petersburg and Moscow. After attaining the qualification to give lectures, he pursued research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, USA, at the University of Jena, Germany, at the Moscow State University of Medicine, Russia, and at Northwestern University in Chicago, USA. From 2008 to 2012, Grinevich was a group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg. Since 2012, he has been leading the Chica and Heinz Schaller Research Group "Neuropeptides" at the DKFZ. 

The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institution in Germany. More than 1,300 scientists at the DKFZ investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and search for new strategies to prevent people from developing cancer. They are developing new methods to diagnose tumors more precisely and treat cancer patients more successfully. The DKFZ's Cancer Information Service (KID) provides patients, interested citizens and experts with individual answers to all questions on cancer.

Jointly with partners from the university hospitals, the DKFZ operates the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) in Heidelberg and Dresden, and the Hopp Children's Cancer Center KiTZ in Heidelberg. In the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK), one of the six German Centers for Health Research, the DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partner locations. NCT and DKTK sites combine excellent university medicine with the high-profile research of the DKFZ. They contribute to the endeavor of transferring promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improving the chances of cancer patients.

The DKFZ is 90 percent financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.


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