Researchers Tie Social Behavior to Activity in Specific Brain Circuit
by Jason von Stietz - June 27, 2014
Can social behavior be linked back to specific wiring in the brain? Researchers at Stanford University examined the relationships between a specific circuit in the brain and the tendency of mammals to interact socially. When researchers stimulated this circuit in mice they instantly engaged in social behavior with unfamiliar mice. In contrast, when researchers inhibited this circuit the mice refrained from social activity and ignored the other mice. Medical Xpress discussed the study in a recent article:
The new findings, to be published June 19 inCell, may throw light on psychiatric disorders marked by impaired social interaction such as autism, social anxiety, schizophrenia and depression, said the study's senior author, Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, a professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. The findings are also significant in that they highlight not merely the role of one or another brain chemical, as pharmacological studies tend to do, but rather the specific components of brain circuits involved in a complex behavior. A combination of cutting-edge techniques developed in Deisseroth's laboratory permitted unprecedented analysis of how brain activity controls behavior.
Deisseroth, the D.H. Chen Professor and a member of the interdisciplinary Stanford Bio-X institute, is a practicing psychiatrist who sees patients with severe social deficits. "People with autism, for example, often have an outright aversion to social interaction," he said. They can find socializing—even mere eye contact—painful.
Deisseroth pioneered a brain-exploration technique, optogenetics, that involves selectively introducing light-receptor molecules to the surfaces of particular nerve cellsin a living animal's brain and then carefully positioning, near the circuit in question, the tip of a lengthy, ultra-thin optical fiber (connected to a laser diode at the other end) so that the photosensitive cells and the circuits they compose can be remotely stimulated or inhibited at the turn of a light switch while the animal remains free to move around in its cage.
Using optogenetics and other methods he and his associates have invented, Deisseroth and his associates were able to both manipulate and monitor activity in specific nerve-cell clusters, and the fiber tracts connecting them, in mice's brains in real time while the animals were exposed to either murine newcomers or inanimate objects in various laboratory environments. The mice's behavioral responses were captured by video and compared with simultaneously recorded brain-circuit activity.
In some cases, the researchers observed activity in various brain centers and nerve-fiber tracts connecting them as the mice variously examined or ignored one another. Other experiments involved stimulating or inhibiting impulses within those circuits to see how these manipulations affected the mice's social behavior.
To avoid confusing simple social interactions with mating- and aggression-related behaviors, the researchers restricted their experiments to female mouse pairs.
The scientists first examined the relationship between the mice's social interactions and a region in the brain stem called the ventral tegmental area. The VTA is a key node in the brain's reward circuitry, which produces sensations of pleasure in response to success in such survival-improving activities as eating, mating or finding a warm shelter in a cold environment.
The VTA transmits signals to other centers throughout the brain via tracts of fibers that secrete chemicals, including one called dopamine, at contact points abutting nerve cells within these faraway centers. When dopamine lands on receptors on those nerve cells, it can set off signaling activity within them.
Abnormal activity in the VTA has been linked to drug abuse and depression, for example. But much less is known about this brain center's role in social behavior, and it had not previously been possible to observe or control activity along its connections during social behavior.
Deisseroth and his colleagues used mice whose dopamine-secreting, or dopaminergic, VTA nerve cells had been bioengineered to express optogenetic control proteins that could set off or inhibit signaling in the cells in response to light. They observed that enhancing activity in these cells increased a mouse's penchant for social interaction. When a newcomer was introduced into its cage, it came, it saw, it sniffed. Inhibiting the dopaminergic VTA cells had the opposite effect: The host lost much of its interest in the guest.
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