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Rats are more social than we thought

Rats are amazing at avoiding dangers. What is their secret? Could empathy be a contributing factor? Or is this too far-fetched? This is what a group of researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience tried to investigate. Their study, published on December 5th in PLoS Biology, shows that rats can use other rats as danger antennas, by being exquisitely sensitive to the emotions of the rats around them. With this finding, new targets for treatment of empathy disorders in humans, such as psychopathy and fronto-temporal dementia, will open in the future.

In contrast to the idea of empathy being a one-way street, where one person shares in the pain of another, the researchers discovered a more interactive process, in which animals align their emotions by mutual influences. They put two rats face to face, and then startled one of them (the demonstrator) with a brief electrical stimulation of the paws. They then observed the reaction of both rats. “The first thing you see is, upon witnessing its neighbour jump, the bystander suddenly looks scared as well. The bystander catches the fear of the demonstrator” says Rune Bruls, one of the two PhD students that performed the study. The reaction of the bystander influences how the demonstrator feels about the shock that happened to him. Bystanders that were less scared reduced the fear in their demonstrators. “Fear just jumps from one rat to another”, explains Bruls. “That way a rat can prepare for danger before they even see it.”

Neural similarity with humans

In humans, witnessing the pain of others activates a region between the two hemispheres that is also active when we feel pain on our own body. This is considered to be one of the core empathy regions in the brain. To see whether this region is the same in rats, the team injected a drug to temporarily reduce activity of this area. “What we observed, was striking: without the region that humans use to empathize, the rats were no longer sensitive to the distress of a fellow rat. Our sensitivity to the emotions of others is thus perhaps more similar to that of the rat than many may have thought” explains Professor Christian Keysers, the lead author of the study.

No nepotism

Another remarkable finding, is that empathy is independent from the fact whether you know the other. For rats that had never met each other, the emotions of the other rat were as contagious as for rats that had shared the same home for 5 weeks. “This really challenges our notions of the origin of empathy” says Valeria Gazzola, one of the senior authors of the study. Many believe that humans and animals are empathic, because if they are sensitive to the pains of their kids, it is good for Darwin fitness. This parental care then generalizes to empathizing with your closest friends. “What our data suggest, is that an observer shares the emotions of others because it enables the observer to prepare for danger. It’s not about helping the victim, but about avoiding to become a victim yourself” explains Gazzola.

It takes one to know one

Although familiarity with the demonstrator turns out not to play a role in whether a rat reacts empathic or not, previous experience does. Efe Soyman, a postdoc in the lab, compared two groups of observers: one that had, and one that hadn’t experienced electrical stimulation in the past. He found that while the experienced observers showed dramatic levels of empathic fear, the inexperienced ones barely reacted at all to what happened to the demonstrator. This is important, because it shows that emotional contagion is not an inborn mechanism, but something that we need to learn. “Rats are like humans: the more our experiences match those of the people we observe, the more we can empathize with what they feel. It takes one to know one!” Efe concludes.

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Keysers Group

While we watch a movie, we share the experiences of the actors we observe: our heart for instance starts beating faster while we see an actor slip from the roof of a tall building. Why?

Specific brain areas are involved when we perform certain actions or have certain emotions or sensations. Interestingly, some of these areas are also recruited when we simply observe someone else performing similar actions, having similar sensations or having similar emotions. These areas called ‘shared circuits’ transform what we see into what we would have done or felt in the same situation. With such brain areas, understanding other people is not an effort of explicit thought but becomes an intuitive sharing of their emotions, sensations and actions.

Christian Keysers‘ lab focuses on providing increasingly detailed insights into how exactly the brain achieves this remarkable feat of empathy. For this aim, the lab combines powerful methods to non-invasively image brain activity in humans, with an unprecedented ability to record and influence brain activity at neural levels in rodents. You can get an impression for the labs spirit in these short movies:

 

In addition, the lab explores why some people seem to show very reduced empathy, for instance in patient groups that suffer from impairments in social cognition, including autism and psychopathy. You can get an impression for that work from the following episode with Morgan Freeman:

Cover The Empathic Brain

 

Read more about our research in Christian Keysers’s book The Empathic Brain.

Available at Amazon US, EU, UK in English, or as translations into Dutch (Het empathische brein), German (Unser Empathisches Gehirn), Turkish or Japanese.

 

Or what Christian Keysers present the lab at the Marie Curie Action’s 20th Anniversary in Brussels

 

Social Brain Lab

Befitting our interest in social cognition, my lab and that of Valeria Gazzola create a joint, strongly collaborative cluster of expertise on the neural basis of social cognition that we call the Social Brain Lab.

Student projects

If you are interested in applying for an internship in the Social Brain Lab please follow the instructions in this document. This also applies to literature thesis projects.

Funding

ERC European Commission FP7

NWOMarieCurie

The Keysers lab studies fundamental issues in social neuroscience. To do so, we are entirely dependent on public funding. We are enormously thankful to the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO) and the European Commission for being dedicated patrons of such frontier science. Without the Talent Scheme of NWO that has supported our work through VENI, VIDI and VICI grants, and without the European Commission that has supported us through the ERC and several Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, we would have been unable to tackle the mysteries of our social nature. In addition, the Dutch Government has helped us deeply through the  National Initiative for Brain and Cognition.

FACILITIES

The social brain lab is equipped to integrate research in humans and rodents. For this purpose it has the following equipment.

HUMAN RESEARCH:

Human Equipment at SBL
Human Equipment at SBL
  • 3T philips scanner at the Spinoza Center (10m away, click here for details)
  • 7T philips scanner at the Spinoza Center (10m away, click here for details)
  • 130Ch ActiChamp EEG system (that can be split in two 64Ch systems for hyperscanning)
  • Magstim Rapid TMS system with neuronavigation
  • 8Ch Soterix tDCS system

RODENT RESEARCH

  • housing facilities for mice and rats
  • 64Ch Neuralynx Electrophysiology system for freely moving rodents with silicon probes or tetrodes
  • Neurolabware two-photon laser scanning microscope with Phenosys VR system
  • DM2 fascilities for viral transfections
  • Ethovision system for behavioral analysis

DATA ANALYSIS

  • 40 Core, 2TB RAM shared ram supercomputer

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Gazzola Group

When we see a little girl falling from her bike, why do most of us instinctively run to help and comfort her?

Years of research show that one of the reasons why we help other people is because their suffering activates brain regions that are also active when we ourselves are hurt. The pain of the child with her bleeding knee becomes our own pain. Helping the girl now becomes a way to sooth what is now our pain. A similar contagion happens for other emotions as well: we rejoice with our friend when we watch her crossing the finish line of her first marathon.
In some circumstances the decision to help is less readily made, but requires a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of the action we decide to take. For instance, if you are late for an important job interview, and you see the mother also running toward the child, you might decide to keep on going instead. This is because you have quickly calculated the benefits for the other against the costs for yourself, and found that the costs of helping (high probability of not getting the coveted new job) in this case are higher than the benefits to the other (comforting a child you do not know while her mom will soon arrive).

Some of the core questions my lab currently investigates are: What areas of the brain cause us to act prosocially? How does the brain weigh the benefits to self and the cost to others? How do we learn the consequences our actions have on others? When we hit someone he will likely be in pain. How does this make us learn that hitting people is bad? Why do psychopathic individuals fail to acquire these moral sentiments? Does the activation of our own pain brain regions while witnessing the other wince in pain play a critical role in that learning?

In order to answer these questions, we synergize brain imaging tools such as 3T and 7T fMRI and EEG, and neuro-modulation tools, such as TMS and tDCS.

 

 

Social Brain Lab

Befitting our interest in social cognition, my lab and that of Christian Keysers create a joint, strongly collaborative cluster of expertise on the neural basis of social cognition that we call the Social Brain Lab.

STUDENT PROJECTS

If you are interested in applying for an internship in the Social Brain Lab please follow the instructions in this document. This also applies to literature thesis projects.

Funding

The Gazzola lab is generously financed by the Dutch Science Foundation’s Innovational Research Incentives Scheme (VIDI), the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, the European Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, and the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología of Mexico.

 

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