How does social distancing affect the brain?
How Social Distancing and Isolation Affect Our Brain
During the global pandemic, health experts have consistently advised us to practice social distancing and self-isolation in order to protect ourselves from the highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, have you ever considered how these measures impact our lives, particularly our brain?
A research team led by Erin Schuman from the Max Planck Institute of Brain Research has discovered that certain brain molecules function as a thermometer, indicating the presence of other creatures in our environment. One fascinating example they provided involves zebrafish, which are believed to sense the presence of other aquatic animals through water movements and mechanosensation.
It is undeniable that different social conditions have a significant impact on both humans and animals. Our brain unconsciously perceives and processes information about our surroundings. To gain a better understanding of this concept, Lukas Anneser and his colleagues conducted an experiment involving zebrafish. They raised some fish alone and others with their kin for varying periods of time. The researchers used RNA sequencing to measure the expression levels of numerous neuronal genes.
Anneser and his team observed consistent changes in gene expression among the zebrafish raised in isolation. One gene that stood out was parathyroid hormone 2, which is responsible for detecting the presence of others and assessing their density. Interestingly, when the zebrafish were kept in isolation, the effects of parathyroid hormone 2 diminished. However, when other fish were introduced into the tank, the expression levels increased, much like a thermometer reading.
Intrigued by these findings, the researchers decided to reverse the experiment. After swimming with their kin for approximately 30 minutes, the zebrafish showed a significant recovery in parathyroid hormone 2 levels. Anneser noted that after 12 hours with their kin, the levels of parathyroid hormone 2 were indistinguishable from those observed in socially-raised animals. This rapid and powerful regulation was unexpected and indicated a close link between gene expression and the environment.
Erin Schuman explained that parathyroid hormone 2 is regulated by a sensory modality known as mechanosensation, which allows organisms to perceive movement in their vicinity. In the case of fish, they sense water movements through a sensory organ called the lateral line. To test the role of mechanosensation in driving parathyroid hormone 2 expression, the research team surgically removed sensitive cells from the fish’s lateral line.
Just as humans are sensitive to touch, fish are sensitive to water movements caused by the swimming of other fish. The scientists observed the level of change in parathyroid hormone 2 expression due to water movements in the tank.
After conducting thorough research, Erin Schuman concluded that the presence of others can have a profound impact on our survival. It is clear that our neurological hormones play a crucial role in regulating our brain’s social behavior.