December 3, 2008

Evan Lebovitz ’09 Explores the Body’s Reaction to Kissing

Neuroscience major and Professor Wendy Hill will present research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting

Neuroscience major Evan Lebovitz ’09 (Pittsburgh, Pa.) is performing EXCEL research with Wendy Hill, Provost and Rappolt Professor in Neuroscience, on people’s physical and emotional reactions to kissing. The research is a continuation of an honors project conducted by neuroscience graduate Carey Wilson ’07, which received coverage in many news outlets including the Washington Post and Scientific American Mind. The three researchers will present the current project at “The Science of Kissing” symposium during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held Feb. 12-16, 2009 in Chicago. Below, Lebovitz writes about his research experience.

  • Research by Carey Wilson ’07 Featured in Scientific American Mind

I have been working with Professor Hill as a continuation on Carey Wilson’s honors thesis project. I originally began performing EXCEL research with Dr. Hill last year as a junior and worked on mating behavior of zebra finches, but our focus shifted at the beginning of this year when we were invited to speak at the AAAS conference in February on The Science of Kissing. The meeting is an interdisciplinary conference bringing together many different kinds of research concerning the anthropology, neuroscience, and influence of other factors on kissing.

In Carey’s original thesis, she had the couples kiss or hold hands for 15 minutes and compared their levels of cortisol and oxytocin before and afterwards. Cortisol is a measure of stress, while oxytocin has many roles but functions largely in “pair-bonding” in couples. Results of the experiment showed that after both kissing and holding hands, both members of each couple showed decreased stress as measured by decreased levels of cortisol.

This was an expected finding as kissing can be seen as a stress reducing behavior. Oxytocin was predicted to go up in the couples since it is a measure of pair bonding and in previous studies has been shown to increase during sex. However, Carey found that while the male participants showed increased levels of oxytocin as expected, females actually showed a decrease in oxytocin.

These results caused the original hypothesis to be rejected and suggested that something about either the kissing behavior or the procedure may have caused the unexpected finding. She hypothesized that the location of the study in Bailey Health Center may have resulted in the negative feelings of the females that caused a decrease in oxytocin.

To present at the conference in February, Dr. Hill and I have designed a study to follow up on Carey’s work. We will begin testing additional couples in a method similar to Carey’s with a few important modifications.

First, the procedure will take place in Oechsle Hall instead of the health center for a more neutral environment. Second, the music used during the study will be changed to create a more relaxing atmosphere. Third, the kissing group will remain fairly similar to the previous study, but the control group will now have the couples simply talking instead of holding hands. In this experiment, we will also be examining the role of α-amylase, a measure of sympathetic nervous system activation and excitement. Since there was such an interesting gender difference in the previous study, we are also interested to see the results when homosexual couples are involved in the experiment.

My role throughout the project has been to design the current study with Dr. Hill. I will be recruiting participants around campus and will be running the study, collecting and analyzing the results, and then I will be presenting them in conjunction with the results from Carey’s original work at the conference.

My EXCEL research has served as an avenue for me to explore my passion for neuroscience. I am very interested in the relationship between biochemistry and behavior, and I plan to continue to pursue my passion next year in medical school through continued research and clinical involvement.

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