30 May 2011

Mother hen

British researchers at Bristol University, School of Veterinery Sciences have shown that hens show empathy to their young – the first time this has been shown in a bird.

Making use of technical advances in non-invasive monitoring, the researchers found that domestic hens show a clear physiological and behavioural response to their chicks’ distress.

During one of the controlled procedures, when the chicks were exposed to a puff of air, the hens’ heart rate increased and eye temperature decreased. The hens also changed their behaviour, and reacted with increased alertness, decreased preening and increased vocalisations directed to their chicks.

Empathy was once thought to be a completely human trait and that the brains of mammals functioned for survival and reproduction, not for any purpose of emotional intelligence. Of course this finding has implications for the welfare of chickens in battery farms and research labs.

It also supports the theory that in humans our empathetic ability resides in the 'lower' parts of the brain, areas such as the limbic system and brain stem, which we have in common with other mammals.

Switching off fear

Researchers at Stanford University have found that stimulating a particular brain circuit can counter fear. Pulses of light triggered the stimulation in mice and boosted their willingness to take risks. Inhibiting it had the opposite effect and made them more timid.

Neuroscientist Professor Ken Deisseroth targeted a circuit within the amygdala area of the limbic brain working within the specialist field of optogenetics, where nerve cells become photo-sensitive. The action of the cell can therefore be controlled and switched on or off by using different wavelengths of light.

The mice became much more comfortable in situations they would otherwise be wary of – such as being in wide open spaces. As soon as the light was pulsed into the brain circuit, the mice were much more willing to explore. Yet changing the pulse to a different wavelength turned the mice much more anxious.

This could be the beginning of some interesting debates around treating human anxiety and panic, which of course can be debilitating for many people.

I wonder if optogenetics is responsible for our behaviour in laser games and discos?!

Unable to recognise a face?

I was with a friend the other day and she looked at me for a long time before saying my name. I casually asked if all was OK and she told me she suffers from face-blindness – which I never knew about, even though I have known her for 10 years. She took her cue to realise it was me, when she remembered the dress I was wearing.

The condition is called prosopagnosia which can be inherited or caused by a brain injury. For my friend, its symptoms occurred quite suddenly as an adult and she had had no injury as a catalyst – she described it as being very frightening and only achieved some sense of relief with the diagnosis. It is more than not being able to put a name to a face, which is something a lot of people experience. It is caused by an impairment in the right hemisphere of the brain that specifically identifies faces. She can make out facial features fine – and is actually a wonderful portrait artist – but she doesn’t connect it with that person in her brain.

Dr Joseph DeGutis, a neuroscientist at Harvard University is currently using a training programme to help sufferers which encourages them to look at the whole face as typically they seem to look at only one facial feature at one time.

For my friend, having prosopagnosia has increased her sensory acuity in other senses. She says she is far more conscious of smell – the perfumes people wear, if they are big coffee drinkers for instance. And I was glad to offer her the genuine feedback that she comes across always as being a wonderful listener – which she would be irrespective of the prosopagnosia – as she is very aware of different people’s voices, the pitch, tone and different subtleties in the spoken word.
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