What social distancing may do to your brain

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Have you recently wondered how social-distancing and self-isolation may be affecting your brain?

In a new study, researchers discovered a brain molecule that functions as a “thermometer” for the presence of others in the environment.

The research was conducted by a team from the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and elsewhere.

Varying social conditions can cause long-lasting changes in animal behavior. Social isolation, for instance, can have devastating effects on humans and other animals, including zebrafish.

The brain systems that sense the social environment, however, are not well understood.

To probe whether neuronal genes respond to dramatic changes in the social environment, the team raised zebrafish either alone or with their kin for different periods of time.

The scientists used RNA sequencing to measure the expression levels of thousands of neuronal genes.

They found a consistent change in expression for a handful of genes that were raised in social isolation.

Thrilled by this discovery, the scientists tested if the effects of isolation could be reversed by putting the previously isolated fish into a social setting.

After just 30 minutes of swimming with their kin, there was a significant recovery of the hormone pth2 levels. The pth2 expression tracked not just the presence of others, but also their density.

After 12 hours, the pth2 levels were indistinguishable from those seen in socially-raised animals.

This really strong and fast regulation was unexpected and indicated a very tight link between gene expression and the environment.

So which sensory modality do the animals use to detect others and drive changes in gene expression?

It turned out that the sensory modality that controls pth2 expression was not vision, taste or smell, but rather mechanosensation—they actually ‘felt’ the physical movements of the swimming neighboring fish.

The findings indicate a surprising role for a relatively unexplored neuropeptide, Pth2- it tracks and responds to the population density of a social environment.

It is clear that the presence of others can have dramatic consequences on an animal’s access to resources and ultimate survival—it is thus likely that this neuro-hormone will regulate social brain and behavioral networks.

One author of the study is Erin Schuman.

The study is published in Nature.

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