Episode 5: Neurobiology of Love and Loss (Guest: Dr. Zoe Donaldson)

Over the last few decades, distances between us around the world have been compressed through air travel and technological innovations, but the pandemic has temporarily re-expanded the Earth. As we have been tasked with forcibly isolating from one another for the benefit of humanity, it’s becoming evident just how difficult this is. Despite our digital-aged communication tools that were only found in fairytales not long ago, they never quite replace a real-life bond. So why do humans crave such a connection? Why are they so important to our well-being?


In today’s episode, we sit down with Dr. Zoe Donaldson, an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. There, she studies monogamous prairie voles to identify the neural and genetic basis of complex social behaviors, including social bond formation and the response to loss. Her findings could help us to better manage our physical and mental health, by uncovering the genetics of monogamy related behaviors as well as the mechanisms of social buffering. In our interview, we discuss why she chose the prairie vole for her investigations, the neurotransmitters involved in bond formation, and why we do better getting through stressful situations together.

Dr. Zoe Donaldson


Şeydanur Tıkır


Joanna Krzyspiak


You can download the transcript of this episode at https://neuronair.org/ep5transcript
00:00 – Intro
02:54 – Dr. Donaldson’s research questions at a broad level
04:35 – Are humans truly monogamous? Social and genetic monogamy
08:19 – The story of how Dr. Donaldson decided to study this topic
11:22 – Studying unconventional model organism
14:33 – The role of neurotransmitters in bonding behavior
18:50 – Dr. Donaldson’s finding about “approach cells” in the brain
22:31 – Can we execute the concept of the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
25:12 – How Dr. Donaldson’s research relates to complicated grief, and management of anxiety & depression
27:35 – The differences between how humans and animals experience grief
34:35 – Social buffering
39:56 – How Dr. Donaldson’s research could contribute to human life or treating mental illnesses 
42:24 – Outro and Summary