Archive for the ‘James Gorman’ Category

By James Gorman

If an exercise wheel sits in a forest, will mice run on it?

Every once in a while, science asks a simple question and gets a straightforward answer.

In this case, yes, they will. And not only mice, but also rats, shrews, frogs and slugs.

True, the frogs did not exactly run, and the slugs probably ended up on the wheel by accident, but the mice clearly enjoyed it. That, scientists said, means that wheel-running is not a neurotic behavior found only in caged mice.

They like the wheel.

Two researchers in the Netherlands did an experiment that it seems nobody had tried before. They placed exercise wheels outdoors in a yard and in an area of dunes, and monitored the wheels with motion detectors and automatic cameras.

They were inspired by questions from animal welfare committees at universities about whether mice were really enjoying wheel-running, an activity used in all sorts of studies, or were instead like bears pacing in a cage, stressed and neurotic. Would they run on a wheel if they were free?

Now there is no doubt. Mice came to the wheels like human beings to a health club holding a spring membership sale. They made the wheels spin. They hopped on, hopped off and hopped back on.

“When I saw the first mice, I was extremely happy,” said Johanna H. Meijer at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands. “I had to laugh about the results, but at the same time, I take it very seriously. It’s funny, and it’s important at the same time.”

Dr. Meijer’s day job is as a “brain electrophysiologist” studying biological rhythms in mice. She relished the chance to get out of the laboratory and study wild animals, and in a way that no one else had.

She said Konrad Lorenz, the great-grandfather of animal behavior studies, once mentioned in a letter that some of his caged rats had escaped and then returned to his garden to use running wheels placed there.

But, Dr. Meijer said, the Lorenz observation “was one sentence.”

For the experiment, the wheels were enclosed so that small animals could come and go but so that larger animals could not knock them over. Dr. Meijer set up motion sensors and automatic video cameras. Several years and 12,000 snippets of video later, she and Yuri Robbers, also a Leiden researcher, reported the results. They were released in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Gene D. Block, chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, was not involved with the paper but knows Dr. Meijer and had seen the wheel set up in her garden. He said the study made it clear that wheel-running is “some type of rewarding behavior” and “probably not driven by stress or anxiety.”

Mice accounted for 88 percent of the wheel-running events, and spent one minute to 18 on the wheel. The other animals each accounted for less than 1 percent. Frogs, though there were very few, were seen to get on the wheel, get off and get back on.

Russell Foster, a circadian rhythm researcher at Oxford University, said he read the paper and sent it out to other scientists on behalf of the Proceedings and was delighted when peer reviews from other scientists were positive.

Marc Bekoff, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado who is active in the animal welfare movement, said in an email that he thought the paper did show that wheel-running could be a “voluntary activity,” but that mice in labs may be doing more of it because of the stress of confinement.

“Wild bears will often pace back and forth,” he wrote, “but in captivity, the rate of doing it seems to be greatly heightened.”

As to why the mice, frogs or perhaps even slugs run, or move, on the wheel, Dr. Meijer said she thought that “there is an intrinsic motivation for animals, or should I say organisms, to be active.”

Huda Akil, co-director of the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute at the University of Michigan, who has studied reward systems, said: “It’s not a surprise. All you have to do is watch a bunch of little kids in a playground or a park. They run and run and run.”

Dr. Akil said that in humans, running activates reward pathways in the brain, although she pointed out that there are innate differences in temperament in all sorts of animals, including humans. Rats that do not like to run can be bred. And plenty of people do all they can to avoid jogging, cycling and elliptical machines.

Presumably, the same is true of wild mice. While some were setting the wheel on fire with their exertions, others, out of camera range, may have been sprawled out on the mouse equivalent of a lounge chair, shaking their whiskers in dismay and disbelief.

Thanks to Dr. Nakamura for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/21/science/study-shows-that-mice-run-for-fun-not-just-for-lab-work.html?emc=eta1

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panic-attack

By JAMES GORMAN
Published: February 3, 2013
New York Times

In the past few years, scientists have learned a lot about fear from a woman who could not experience it. A rare illness had damaged a part of her brain known as the amygdala and left her eerily unafraid.

Both in experiments and in life, the woman, known as SM, showed no fear of scary movies, snakes, spiders or very real domestic assaults, death threats, and robberies at knife- and gunpoint.

Although she lived in an area “replete with crime, drugs and danger,” according to an earlier study, because she lacked a functioning amygdala, an evolutionarily ancient part of the brain long known to process fear, nothing scared her.

But recently SM had a panic attack. And the simple fact that she was able to feel afraid without a working amygdala, experts say, illuminates some of the brain’s most fundamental processes and may have practical value in the study of panic attacks.

SM’s moments of fear occurred during an experiment that involved inhaling carbon dioxide through a mask in amounts that are not harmful but create a momentary feeling of suffocation. Not only SM, but two other women, identified as AM and BG, identical twins with amygdala damage similar to SM’s, showed all the physical symptoms of panic, and reported that, to their surprise, they felt intense fear.

The researchers, who report on the experiment in the current issue of Nature Neuroscience, had hypothesized that SM would not panic. John A. Wemmie, a neuroscientist at the University of Iowa and the senior author of the paper, said, “We saw the exact opposite.”

Antonio Damasio, of the University of Southern California, who had worked with SM and some of the researchers involved in this study on previous papers but did not participate in this research, said he was delighted with the results. It confirmed his own thinking, he said, that while the amygdala was central to fear generated by external threats, there was a different brain path that produced the feeling of fear generated by internal bodily experiences like a heart attack. This idea was put forth in a 2011 paper about SM on which he was a co-author.

“I think it’s a very interesting and important result,” he said.

Dr. Joseph E. LeDoux, of New York University, who has extensively studied the amygdala but was not involved in the research, said in an e-mail, “This is a novel and important paper” in an area where there is much left to learn. He said scientists still did not understand “how the brain creates a conscious experience of fear,” whether the amygdala or other systems are involved.

SM scores in the normal range on I.Q. and other tests, and she voluntarily participated in this and earlier studies, all of which showed her lacking in any sort of fear response until now. In one, for example, she walked through a Halloween haunted house and never gasped, recoiled or screamed, as others did, when a person in a costume leapt out of the dark. She also did not seem to learn fear from life experiences.

So what was so unusual about carbon dioxide?

The answer seems to lie in the way the brain monitors disturbances in the world outside the body — snakes and robbers — compared with the way it monitors trouble inside the body — hunger, heart attacks, the feeling of not being able to breathe. External threats clearly are processed by the amygdala. But she had never been tested for internal signals of trouble.

In the experiment that SM and others participated in, they took one deep breath with plenty of oxygen but much more carbon dioxide than air usually contains. Humans are actually not sensitive to how much oxygen they are breathing, but they are sensitive to how much carbon dioxide is accumulating in the body, since it builds up quickly when a person cannot breathe. The sensation is familiar to people who have tried to hold their breath.

The researchers suggest that excess carbon dioxide produces signals that may be picked up in the brainstem and elsewhere, activating a fear-generating system in the brain that a venomous snake or a mugger with a gun would not set off.

One puzzling aspect of the results is that SM and the two other women all reacted so strongly. Among people with normal brains, only those with panic disorder are reliably terrified in carbon dioxide experiments. Most people are not so susceptible, said Colin Buzza, a co-author of the study and a medical student at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, suggesting that perhaps the amygdala is not functioning properly in people with panic disorder.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/04/health/study-discovers-internal-trigger-for-the-previously-fearless.html?_r=0