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Social interactions are shaped by features of the interactants including age, emotion, sex and familiarity. Age-specific responses to social affect are evident when an adult male rat is presented with a pair of unfamiliar male conspecifics, one of which is stressed via 2 footshocks and the other naive to treatment. Adult test rats prefer to interact with stressed juvenile (PN30) conspecifics, but avoid stressed adult (PN50) conspecifics. This pattern depends upon the insular cortex (IC) which is anatomically connected to the nucleus accumbens core (NAc). The goal of this work was to test the necessity of IC projections to NAc during social affective behavior. Here, bilateral pharmacological inhibition of the NAc with tetrodotoxin (1uM; 0.5ul/side) abolished the preference for stressed PN30, but did not alter interactions with PN50 conspecifics. Using a combination of retrograding tracing and c-Fos immunohistochemistry, we report that social interactions with stressed PN30 conspecifics elicit greater Fos immunoreactivity in IC → NAc neurons than interactions with naive PN30 conspecifics. Chemogenetic stimulation of IC terminals in the NAc increased social exploration with juvenile, but not adult, conspecifics, while chemogenetic inhibition of this tract blocked the preference to investigate stressed PN30 conspecifics, which expands upon our previous finding that optogenetic inhibition of IC projection neurons mediated approach and avoidance. These new findings suggest that outputs of IC to the NAc modulate social approach, which provides new insight to the neural circuitry underlying social decision-making.
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