Cell and Tissue Research

, Volume 354, Issue 1, pp 81–97 | Cite as

Affective communication in rodents: ultrasonic vocalizations as a tool for research on emotion and motivation

  • Markus WöhrEmail author
  • Rainer K. W. Schwarting


Mice and rats emit and perceive calls in the ultrasonic range, i.e., above the human hearing threshold of about 20 kHz: so-called ultrasonic vocalizations (USV). Juvenile and adult rats emit 22-kHz USV in aversive situations, such as predator exposure and fighting or during drug withdrawal, whereas 50-kHz USV occur in appetitive situations, such as rough-and-tumble play and mating or in response to drugs of abuse, e.g., amphetamine. Aversive 22-kHz USV and appetitive 50-kHz USV serve distinct communicative functions. Whereas 22-kHz USV induce freezing behavior in the receiver, 50-kHz USV lead to social approach behavior. These opposite behavioral responses are paralleled by distinct patterns of brain activation. Freezing behavior in response to 22-kHz USV is paralleled by increased neuronal activity in brain areas regulating fear and anxiety, such as the amygdala and periaqueductal gray, whereas social approach behavior elicited by 50-kHz USV is accompanied by reduced activity levels in the amygdala but enhanced activity in the nucleus accumbens, a brain area implicated in reward processing. These opposing behavioral responses, together with distinct patterns of brain activation, particularly the bidirectional tonic activation or deactivation of the amygdala elicited by 22-kHz and 50-kHz USV, respectively, concur with a wealth of behavioral and neuroimaging studies in humans involving emotionally salient stimuli, such as fearful and happy facial expressions. Affective ultrasonic communication therefore offers a translational tool for studying the neurobiology underlying socio-affective communication. This is particularly relevant for rodent models of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by social and communication deficits, such as autism and schizophrenia.


Anxiety Fear Autism Social behavior Preparedness 



The authors thank Nicole Yee for the photographs shown in Fig. 4a–c.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Behavioral Neuroscience, Experimental and Physiological PsychologyPhilipps University of MarburgMarburgGermany

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