Harry Shair, PhD
Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology
Dr. Shair, a past-president of the International Society of Developmental Psychobiology, studies how the early environment, pre- or postnatal, contributes to ontogenetic course of the growing organism. Much of his work has focused on the influence of the parent-infant interaction on postnatal development. His most recent work has addressed the mechanisms by which the earliest social bonds are formed.
Social potentiation of the separation response and its use in the study of social bonds
When mammalian infants undergo isolation, most respond with a series of behaviors that include vocalization and increased activity. In rat pups, the vocal portion of the response has a frequency of 40-50 kHz, called ultrasonic vocalizations (USV). USV are known to elicit and hasten retrieval of isolated pups by their dams.
Maternal potentiation of USV represents an augmentation of the separation response caused by a recent social interaction. When a pup isolated in a novel environment is then exposed briefly to maternal contact, in the ensuing isolation, the USV rate is greatly increased (potentiated).
Contact with a group of litter mates or a pile of home cage shavings does not potentiate USV.
The results of studies on the effects of altered early experience raise the possibility that USV potentiation is a marker for a social bond. Pups reared with both dam and sire in the nest cage demonstrate equal USV potentiation to either adult. Normally reared pups exposed to adult males show a fear-related suppression of behavior. Thus, some facet of early experience with an adult male alters the pup's response to the male from fear-like to distress-reducing. Dr. Shair's laboratory is investigating the mechanisms for that altered reaction, with the hypothesis that the results will inform us about how secondary attachments are formed. Similarly, studying how "paternal" potentiation develops will provide clues to the formation of the primary relationship to the dam.