Hundreds of millions of females worldwide remain in danger of childhood marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), a cultural procedure that causes extreme physical and psychological harm. Both are internationally recognized as human rights violations (by Save the Children and UNICEF), and FGM has always been counter-intuitive to the science of bonding and developing long-lasting relationships.
Understanding relationships has been a scientific priority for Emory University neuroendocrinologist Larry Young. When a 2019 email about FGM caught his attention, he knew he had to apply his scientific discoveries about pair bonding to help end the traumatizing practice. Young, a professor in Emory’s School of Medicine and a division chief at the university’s National Primate Research Center, is well-known for his research on the brain chemistry that underlies social bonding, including romantic relationships.
When the scientist met the minister
The life-changing email came from Rev. Patti Ricotta, a minister who leads Life Together International (LTI), a faith-based organization known for uprooting harmful cultural practices to help individuals build meaningful lives and strengthen communities. Ricotta focuses her work in East Africa among people who still practice FGM.
Since 2011, she has combined Young’s research with her theological message on the benefits of keeping women’s bodies intact. This combination of science and theology is changing the way men and women in East Africa relate to each other and is bringing an end to FGM, one community at a time.
Ricotta wanted Young to know his research’s power to change lives for thousands of girls and women. She began writing him about her work in Eastern Uganda and Kenya and invited him to join her to educate community leaders. That email soon led to an ongoing collaboration.
This unexpected alliance represents a surprising result of the broad-ranging aims of Emory’s Center for Translational Social Neuroscience (CTSN), which Young leads: to take lab research focused on brain science and apply it to make a difference in people’s lives. The center’s goal is “healing the social brain” — understanding how brain functions promote social interaction and using that understanding to improve mental and physical well-being.
Voles set the example for creating relationship bonds
Young’s research focuses primarily on small, monogamous rodents called prairie voles. In this species, males and females form long-lasting bonds, and — unlike most nonhuman mammals — both sexes take care of offspring. Young’s studies have shown oxytocin is largely responsible for regulating neural processes in female and male prairie voles that form and sustain pair bonds between breeding partners.
Oxytocin, which plays an important part in maternal nurturing, is released during childbirth and breastfeeding. In women and men, oxytocin is released in the brain in response to pleasurable sexual intimacy, including orgasm.
Young also credits the importance of dopamine for establishing and maintaining neural connections. “Dopamine is the chemical signal of pleasure, and your brain combines the oxytocin and dopamine signals, which are important for creating a bond between partners.”
The FGM practice in East Africa is intended to deter women from seeking relationships outside of marriage by preventing them from experiencing pleasure during sex. FGM also prevents bonding between partners.
When Ricotta recognized FGM was likely to diminish women’s ability to form strong emotional bonds with their husbands, she began using Young’s research to teach religious leaders and other men about the harms of FGM for couples, families and communities.
Facilitating change with facts
The collaboration between Ricotta and Young began with a series of educational videos shared during a men’s conference in January 2020. Those videos continue to be used throughout the region.
Based on interest and willingness for change, Young and Ricotta traveled to Uganda and Kenya in January 2022 to meet with community leaders and give presentations to medical schools, health care professionals and Christian and Muslim clergy. A popular Ugandan national television program’s interview with Young helped further the duo’s educational outreach, and another program featuring Young is scheduled to air this spring in Uganda.
“I shared the results of my research studies in animals and how those findings relate to humans but was careful not to impose any values on them or tell anyone what to do,” Young says. “My goal was to share my knowledge about neurochemistry and science, and then allow them to make decisions based on facts.”
Many men approached Young after his talks to ask how they could form better relationships with their wives who had undergone FGM. Young encouraged eye contact, gentle touch and compliments, explaining these gestures can also result in the release of oxytocin.
Young also explained the role that neurotransmitters play in other relationships, including parent-child bonding. Many cultures in East Africa believe beating their children will make them stronger as adults.
“But I explained nurturing children and forming bonds with them allows them to form strong bonds with their partners later in life,” he says. “If children don’t get the effects of oxytocin when they’re young, it can have negative transgenerational effects.”
Young and Ricotta returned to East Africa in January 2023 to reach teachers, community councilors and clergy and their spouses in four conferences in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The conference attendees immediately expressed how energizing the presentations were, and feedback since has brought a new local meaning to “be fruitful and multiply,” with the emphasis on sharing knowledge, all toward ending FGM.
“I always intended for my research to benefit humans and human health, but this is an area I would not have predicted could make such a big difference for thousands of people,” says Young.
He also didn’t predict the impact sharing his research would have on his own life. “Seeing firsthand how Emory’s science of love and bonding research is eliminating harmful cultural practices and improving lives and communities has been life-changing for me. I can’t wait to get back to Africa and help even more.”
Lecture and Panel Discussion with Larry Young and Patti Ricotta
“Using the Science of Love and Bonding to Bring New Perspectives on Social Relationships, Health and the Practice of Female Genital Mutilation in East Africa”
Thursday, April 20 at 4:30 p.m. | Atwood Chemistry Building (Room 360) and online
Presentations will be followed by discussions on ethical and cultural considerations of using this approach to change longstanding cultural practices in Africa.