Larry Young, who studied the chemistry of love, dies at 56

Prairie voles are stocky, Olympic tunneling rodents that emerge into grassy areas to feast on grass, roots and seeds with their chisel-like teeth, causing migraines in farmers and gardeners.

But for Larry Young they were the secret to understanding romance and love.

Professor Young, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, used prairie voles in a series of experiments that revealed the chemical process for pirouetting the throbbing emotions that poets have tried to put into words for centuries.

He died on March 21 in Tsukuba, Japan, where he was helping to organize a scientific conference. He was 56 years old. The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Anne Murphy.

With their beady eyes, thick tails and sharp claws, prairie voles aren't exactly cuddly. But among rodents they are uniquely domestic: they are monogamous and males and females form a family unit to raise their offspring together.

“Prairie voles, if you take their partner away, show depression-like behavior,” Professor Young told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution in 2009. “It's almost as if there's a withdrawal from their partner.”

This made them ideal for laboratory studies examining the chemistry of love.

In a study published in 1999, Professor Young and his colleagues exploited the gene found in prairie voles associated with vasopressin signaling, a hormone that modulates social behavior. They enhanced vasopressin signaling in mice, which are highly promiscuous.

The headline writers were amused. “Genetic swapping turns lecherous mice into devoted companions,” declared The Ottawa Citizen. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “Genetic science makes mice more romantic.” The Independent of London: “The 'perfect husband' gene discovered”.

Professor Young continued with further prairie vole studies focusing on oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates contractions during birth and is involved in bonding between mothers and newborns.

“Because we knew that oxytocin was involved in mother-baby bonding, we explored whether oxytocin might be involved in this partner bond,” she said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2019.


“If you take two prairie voles, a male and a female, put them together, and this time you don't let them mate and you just give them a bit of oxytocin, they will bond,” Professor Young said. “So this was our first set of experiments to show that oxytocin was involved in things other than maternal bonding.”

He also injected female voles with a drug that blocks oxytocin, making them temporarily polygamous.

“Love doesn’t really fly in and out,” Professor Young wrote in “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction” (2012, with Brian Alexander). “The complex behaviors surrounding these emotions are driven by certain molecules in our brain. It is these molecules, acting on defined neural circuits, that so powerfully influence some of the biggest and most transformative decisions we will ever make.”

Professor Young has always warned that prairie voles are not humans (obviously). But in the same way that mouse studies led to medical breakthroughs, he thought his research on prairie voles had intriguing implications.

“Perhaps one day genetic tests will be available to check the suitability of potential partners, the results of which could match, and even surpass, our instincts in selecting the perfect partner,” Professor Young wrote in Nature. He added: “Drugs that manipulate brain systems at will to increase or decrease our love for another may not be far away.”

In recent years, Professor Young was exploring whether increasing oxytocin under certain conditions would help children with autism who have difficulty with social interactions.

Larry James Young was born on June 16, 1967 in Sylvester, a rural town in southwest Georgia. His father, James Young, and his mother, Margaret (Giddens) Young, were peanut farmers.

As a child he had a cow named Bessie.

“It was a really rural lifestyle,” Ms. Murphy said. “Her aspiration was to go to work at the gas station down the street and become a manager.”

He attended the University of Georgia on a Pell Grant with the intention of becoming a veterinarian. One day, during biochemistry class, he dissected a fruit fly.

“And that's when she fell in love with genetics and just wanted to understand the genetic basis of behavior,” Ms. Murphy said. “That's what drove him the rest of his life.”

After graduating with a degree in biochemistry in 1989, he earned a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Texas at Austin in 1994, and then took a postdoctoral position at Emory. He never left the university, eventually becoming chief of the division of behavioral neuroscience and psychiatric disorders at the Emory National Primate Research Center.

Professor Young married Michelle Willingham in 1985; they later divorced. He married Ms. Murphy in 2002. She is a neuroscientist at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

In addition to his wife, he leaves behind three daughters from his first marriage, Leigh Anna, Olivia and Savannah Young; two stepchildren, Jack and Sam Murphy; one brother, Terry Young; and two sisters, Marcia Young-Whitacre and Robyn Hicks.

On Emory's campus, Professor Young was also known as the Love Doctor. He was popular on Valentine's Day, not just with Mrs. Murphy. Journalists around the world would ask him to explain the chemistry of romance.

One day, he said, there might even be a drug that increases the desire to fall in love.

“It would be completely unethical to give the drug to someone else,” he told the New York Times, “but if you're married and want to maintain that relationship, you might want to give yourself a little booster shot every now and then.”

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