Emory Neuroscientist Larry Young Dedicated His Career to Understanding Complex Social Behaviors

3 researchers looking at data
Dr. Young working with his students to review data.

Working with Monogamous and Promiscuous Voles Brought International Attention and a Remarkable Legacy that Will Impact Neuroscience for Generations to Come.

Emory University lost a luminary in the field of neuroscience with the unexpected passing of Larry Young, PhD, March 21, 2024. He was a pioneer in the science of love and recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on social neuroscience.

Young was the Division Chief of Behavioral Neuroscience and Psychiatric Disorders at the Emory National Primate Research Center and the William P. Timmie Professor in the Emory University School of Medicine (SOM), Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He was a mentor to many Emory students, a generous collaborator to colleagues at home and abroad, and a scientific trailblazer across the world.

After completing his doctoral studies at the University of Texas, Young came to Emory in 1994 for his postdoctoral training and was excited about the possibility of making new discoveries for understanding the complexities of human behavior at the molecular level. He quickly decided to dedicate his career to understanding how neural circuits generate complex social behaviors in animal models of human interactions.

Young’s research explored the genetic and neurobiological mechanisms underlying complex social behaviors, including parent-infant attachments. He studied the mechanisms underlying pair bond formation in two types of closely genetically related small rodents with distinctive social behaviors – the monogamous prairie vole and the promiscuous meadow vole.

Scientific discoveries based on his comparison of the brain chemistry of these two species cemented Young’s reputation as a leading social neuroscientist and served as the foundation for many studies that followed, including his research highlighting the roles of oxytocin and vasopressin in regulating social behavior. These studies had important implications for psychiatric disorders characterized by disruption in social cognition, including autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia.

In one pioneering study Young and his team published in Science (2016), they demonstrated the prairie vole shows an empathy-based consoling response when other voles are distressed. This was the first time researchers showed consolation behavior in rodents, ending the long-standing belief empathy, the ability to detect the distress of others and act to relieve it, is uniquely human.

In another landmark study published in Nature (2004), Young and his research team transformed the promiscuous meadow vole into a bonding vole using sophisticated genetic manipulations. This advance garnered widespread media attention, and Discover Magazine recognized it as one of the top 100 discoveries of the year. Young expressed gratitude for this achievement, saying, “It’s quite an honor for our work to be so highly regarded. We work hard each day to continue to make such important advances in neuroscience.”

He and his research team continued using the basic understanding of social cognition to identify novel treatments for patients who have compromised social function. Young was also applying results from this and other scientific discoveries about pair bonding to help end female genital mutilation in East Africa

“In addition to his important scientific discoveries and contributions, Larry created an extensive multidisciplinary program at Emory that serves as a platform for the further understanding of how humans become emotionally attached,” says William McDonald, MD, Chair of the SOM Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “His founding of the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience at Emory continues to bring together basic scientists and clinicians to study the social brain and disorders with compromised social functioning,” McDonald continues. Young was also the Principal Investigator of the $12.7 million NIH Silvio O. Conte Center for Oxytocin and Social Cognition. Conte Centers are a hallmark of scientific recognition by the NIH, and Young’s leadership of the center contributed significantly to Emory’s reputation of excellence in the field of social neuroscience. 

In addition, “Larry was a longstanding member of the Neuroscience Graduate Program and played an early and essential role in the growth of our community, including a past role as a Director of Graduate Studies and a current role as a member of the Executive Committee,” say his research colleagues Shannon Gourley, PhD, and Robert Liu, PhD. “Larry’s enthusiasm for studying animal behavior and his generosity in lifting others were his calling cards. Larry never missed an opportunity to emphasize the privileges we have as scientists – to get to think for a profession, to travel the world, to spend time with others also fascinated by biology,” they add.

Young published more than 180 peer-reviewed manuscripts, including many in the most prestigious journals in science and medicine, such as Science, Nature, Nature Neuroscience, Nature Genetics and PNAS, testifying to the significance and impact of his research. He was elected as a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, becoming one of only a few members of the Academy at Emory.

Young’s impact extended beyond the laboratory, evidenced by the success of his book "The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the Science of Attraction." Published in 2012, this popular book successfully communicated the intricacies of neurochemistry of sexual and social behaviors in a way that connected scientific rigor with a nonscientist audience.

Because of the remarkable impact of Young’s interdisciplinary research, media outlets ranging from Dateline NBC to National Geographic consistently sought to cover his work. In 2021, the PBS show “Your Fantastic Mind” spotlighted Young in the episode that explored the human brain in love and grief. Not a Valentine’s Day went by that he wasn’t asked to comment on relationships and love. He was also frequently sought as a speaker and was honored with the 2023 School of Medicine Dean’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture and Award.

“The field of oxytocin research would not have led to some of the most extraordinary discoveries in affiliative behavior without Larry’s own extraordinary science, and the science that he fostered through his collaborations, mentorship and scholarship,” says Ami Klin, PhD, Director, Marcus Autism Center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar Professor, The Bernie Marcus Distinguished Chair in Autism and Chief of the Division of Autism & Related Disorders in the SOM Department of Pediatrics.

“Larry was an outstanding scholar and a visionary thought leader whose research will continue to have broad appeal across disciplines,” says R. Paul Johnson, MD, Director of the Emory National Primate Research Center. “He served Emory with intelligence, integrity and a clear sense of direction, and his body of research leaves a remarkable legacy that will continue to impact social neuroscience for generations to come.”

Young and his wife, Dr. Anne Murphy, were married 20 years. Together they raised five children, Leigh Anna, Olivia, Savannah, Jack and Sam. They enjoyed traveling the world and had recently become certified scuba divers. Young also enjoyed spending time hunting and fishing in his hometown of Sylvester, Georgia. 

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