Melissa HolmesAssociate Professor Psychology
Area of Research
behavioural neuroscience; neuroendocrinology; neural plasticity; social behaviour; social status
My overarching research focus is the relationship between adult neural plasticity and social status. I use naked mole-rats to study this relationship because they exhibit the most rigidly organized social and reproductive hierarchy among mammals. Naked mole-rats are eusocial, which is essentially an extreme form of co-operative breeding; they live in large colonies of up to 300 individuals in which reproduction is restricted to a single breeding female (called the queen) and one to three breeding males. Importantly, breeders of both sexes are socially dominant over all other members of the colony; the remaining animals, called subordinates, are kept non-reproductive by the presence of the queen. However, this reproductive suppression is not permanent: adult subordinates can become breeders if they are removed from the colony and paired with an opposite sex mate. My current research program employs inter-related lines of research, which ultimately come together to highlight the importance of social environment in shaping brain and behaviour in adulthood. First and foremost, I study the neuroendocrine mechanisms associated with social status and reproductive suppression. Second, I am interested in individual differences in social phenotype and how these differences arise during development. Third, I investigate how status or changes in the social environment regulate adult neural plasticity. Ultimately, my research program provides new insight to the relationship between social interactions and adult brain function in highly social mammal.