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Archive for the ‘gender’ Category

In relation to our previous and well-visited post about oxytocin, we should mention a new study that uses this very substance in a neuroeconomic set-up. In the study, recently published by Neuron, and headed by Baumgartner et al., it was found that the administration of oxytocin affected subjects’ in a trust game. In particular, it was found that subjects that received oxytocin were not affected by information about co-players that cheated. Or, as put in the abstract:

(…) subjects in the oxytocin group show no change in their trusting behavior after they learned that their trust had been breached several times while subjects receiving placebo decrease their trust.

That is extremely interesting. This suggests that oxytocin, a mammalian hormone + neurotransmitter that is known to be related to maternal behaviour and bonding, also is modulating social trust. So the brain link is obvious. But what happens in the brain when oxytocin is administered during the trust game?

This difference in trust adaptation is associated with a specific reduction in activation in the amygdala, the midbrain regions, and the dorsal striatum in subjects receiving oxytocin, suggesting that neural systems mediating fear processing (amygdala and midbrain regions) and behavioral adaptations to feedback information (dorsal striatum) modulate oxytocin’s effect on trust.

So oxytocin reduces fear and aversion responses, and this leads to the lack of effect in responding to cheaters. Excellent, why not use this for treating anxiety, phobia and other fear-related problems? Sounds promising, and yet other more ethically problematic issues remain to be resolved. Think, for example, about whether oxytocin makes us more susceptible to gambling, shopping and marketing effects? Or what if it may work as the first scientifically proven aphrodisiac? What if your next pick-up line would be “Hi, I’m Thomas, how are you” just followed by a few ‘puff-puff’ sounds.

Joke aside, studies like this demonstrates that emotions and decisions are often influenced by factors not consciously available, or at least only partially so. As the marketing industry is increasingly interested in multi-sensory inventions, oxytocin may be the next step in this endaveour.

-Thomas

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motherbrain1.jpgHaving a baby has a large impact on how we live our lives (trust me). But whereas men may react with amazement, wonder, even jealousy of being left aside, little actually happens to our bodies after birth. The changes that happen in women are far more obvious, not only during pregnancy but after birth also. The production of milk, and the possibility of conditional learning of milk production to the child’s crying is just one example of how body, brain and mind get tuned into caretaking.

Furthermore, studies of oxytocin, a mammalian hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, has been implicated in the bonding of the mother-infant attachment bond. Oxytocin is present in both sexes and is thought to be involved in social bonding, stress-reduction and orgasm, just to mention some. but the hormone seems to play a specific role in how mothers react to their newborns, and the establishment of a sound dyadic attachment. In this way, the brains of mothers change, both as a result of hormonal expression (loads of additional oxytocin) and the social interaction with the infant.

But did you know that some of the neurons in mothers’ brains actually stem from their babies? In other words: some of a mother’s brain cells are actually from the offspring.

This is just what a team of researchers from Singapore have found and published in the journal Stem Cells. It’s well known in this literature that fetal cells can enter the blood of circulation during pregnancy and remain there for many years after birth. These cells can, just as regular stem cells, develop into different kinds of tissue, including bone marrow, liver an spleen cells. But whether these cells can cross the blood-brain barrier has been less certain.

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The expression of fetal stem cells in the mother’s cortex at 4 months after birth. Figure 1-H from the article.

This is exactly what the researchers found. By labelling fetal stem cells they discovered that these cells had indeed crossed the blood-brain barrier and moved into the brain. Furthermore, at measurement four days after pregnancy these cells had developed into neurons, astrocytes, oligodendrocytes or macrophage-like cells. In other words, they developed just as any other stem cell.

So babies gets into their mothers’ minds in more than through hormonal and psychological mechanisms.

However, what is actually the function of these neurons is more unclear. Does the workings of fetal neurons have any significance for their relationship, or any particular mental function in mothers? This is indeed an opening field, and an eye-opener to many people (including myself when I first read it). No results have been reported in either direction as of yet.

What has been studied, however, is how these fetal stem cells can actually play a supporting role in the mother’s brain in the case of pathology. In addition to documenting that fetal stem cells enter the mother’s brain, the researchers added a condition involving brain lesion of the mother’s brain. What they found was just as surprising: after a lesion to the brain, more fetal cells were found in the lesioned region. So the baby’s cells seem tuned into helping the mother regain herself in the case of injury.
Mind-blowing as this finding may be, little is still known about this phenomenon. The development, mechanism, function and evolution of this process is just beginning to be explored. But it already raises a whole range of questions: can we measure a difference between mother’s and “non-mother’s” brains, both structurally and functionally? Does this “fetomaternal microchimerism” lead to any advantages (i.e. survival) in mothers? What is the range of variation in this kind of expression: are there “good” and “bad” fetuses? Are mothers of many children better off in any respect of those with fewer children? Or is this process just a question of striking the energy balance, the child “paying back” what it deprived the mother of during pregnagcy?

So a portion of yourself resides somewhere in your mother’s brain (and body). Children are indeed the result of their parents, but now it seems that children pay back, too.

-Thomas

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violent-child.jpgViolence and criminal behaviour is today thought to involve a series of complex interactions between heritable and environmental factors. Centuries of debate of the relative contribution of nature and nurture have not reached anything resembling a solution, and even today we can find ardent proponents and defenders of each extreme view (see Steven Pinker on this, PDF).

While violence and crime has been part of all recorded history, the society’s understanding of the underlying causes of these acts and how they should be dealt with have changed over time. In modern times, we also see a wide variety of legal practices in dealing with criminals and violators: from the death penalties and multiple life sentences in the US, Russia and other countries, to briefer treatment sentences in Europe. These different societal solutions build – explicitly or implicitly – upon what causes violence and criminal acts, and how they should, if at all possible, be treated.

It would be no understatement to claim that the biological explanation of violence and crime has not been fully implemented (nor understood) by law makers or enforcers. Just as you could say about the society in general: aside from specific demonstrations of how violent offenders have larger or smaller neural damage, little is known about the biological properties of violence. Not that the literature has been flourishing with articles demonstrating such relationships. It hasn’t. Until now, where recent studies report detailed analyses of how genes and environments alter the brain’s workings to make people more or less prone to violence, impulsive acts and criminal behaviour.

In a most interesting paper (PDF) published in PNAS, a team of researchers from Austria, Italy and USA headed by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg have uncovered neurobiological factors that contribute significantly to violence in humans. The team studied the normal allelic variation in the X-linked monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene, a gene that has also been shown to be associated with impulsive aggression in humans and animals.

In the study both structural and functional MRI methods were applied. First, the researchers asked whether the low expression variant of MAOA, known to be associated with increased risk of violent behaviour, would predict differences in the size of limbic structures such as the amygdala. Indeed, what they found was that the low expression MAOA predicted limic reductions, as can be shown from the figure article

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Structural reductions in limbic and paralimbic regions due to genotype. The size of both the amygdala and cingulate cortex are predicted by benotype. The low expression MAOA have significantly reduced volumes of these structures, compared to the high expression MAOA group.

Second, the team studied how these structures worked using two fMRI paradigms. The first task was a facial expression matching task, a task known to involve the amygdalae. The amygdala activation was significantly influenced by genotype: the low MAOA group displayed higher amygdala activation and at the same time lower activation in cingulate cortex subregions, as well as left orbitofrontal cortex and left insular cortex – all brain regions implied in emotion processing.

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Regions involved in facial expression matching (click image for larger version). As you can see from the graphs, there is a genotype-by-gender interaction.

The second task was an emotion memory task, where subjects were asked to encode and recall aversive (compared to neutral) valenced information. Here, the results pointed to a significant genotype-by-gender interaction effect, in that men with a low MAOA version showed increased reactivity of the left amygdala and hippocampus during recall. No such relationship was found for women.

Interestingly, the researchers also found a tight relationship between gender and genotype during the first volumetric study. Here, low-MAOA males showed increased orbitofrontal volume bilaterally, while no such relationship was found in females. In this sense, the MAOA allelic variances seem to influence males most.

Finally, Meyer-Lindenberg and his co-workers draw the lines to other studies relating MAOA variance to a highened sensitivity in low-MAOA males to aversive events (e.g. abuse) during childhood. The combination of a low-MAOA genotype with such events seem to produce abnormal regulation (through the cingulate) of the amygdala and an increased predisposition to impulsivity and violence. As the authors note:

Predisposition to impulsive violence by means of abnormal activation and regulation of emotion-related amygdala function might be further enhanced by deficient neural systems for cognitive control, especially over inhibition, the capacity to suppress prepotent but inappropriate behavior that might originate from a dysregulated affective response. Although the rostral cingulate is key to the regulation of acute affective arousal and emotional learning, inhibitory control of prepotent cognitive responses is thought to be critically dependent on caudal aspects of anterior cingulate. Our study of genetic influences on cognitive impulse control revealed a sex-dependent impairment in precisely this area of cingulate, affecting men only. Our finding of a genotype-by-sex interaction in this region therefore provides a plausible neural mechanism for reduced cognitive inhibitory control in risk allele-carrying males, suggesting synergistic impairment in cognitive and emotional neural regulatory mechanisms that might render MAOA-L men at especially high risk for a neural phenotype that plausibly relates to the slightly greater probability of impulsive violence.

Endnote: it might be useful to note that this study was conducted on healthy, non-criminal volunteers. The obvious step next is to study crime offenders (different types) and the complex interplay between genes, gender and childhood events.

-Thomas

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While trying to digest the overwhelming yet so short conference on Imaging Genetics in Irvine, I find myself just tapping into some of the latest headlines. This little piece in New Scientist on sexual differences in revenge sounds interesting.

From the New Scientist article:

Tania Singer of University College London and colleagues used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to analyse the brain activity of 32 volunteers after their participation in a simple game, called the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The game allows players to cooperate or double-cross one another, and so fosters camaraderie or enmity between players. Following the game, participants were placed inside an fMRI machine and then saw their fellow players zapped with electricity. The activity in their brain was recorded as they watched.

The scans revealed changes in activity as players who had cooperated got zapped, compared with those who had double-crossed them in the game. The results suggest that men get a much bigger kick than women from seeing revenge physically exacted on someone perceived to have wronged them.

So it seems possible that there are sexual differences in how men and women choose their revenge. It does not show, however, that men are more vengeful. But they seem to react more to see their opponents being punished.

Red the full story here and visit Dr. Tania Singer’s homepage to read more.

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