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Mice Deprived of ‘Love Hormone’ Oxytocin Sit Alone in the Cold

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mouse babies huddle

(Credit: auenleben via Pixabay)

(Inside Science) — Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Valentine’s Day falls at a chilly time of year. In biological terms, social drives like love may be bound up with the need to keep warm.

The same hormone, oxytocin, helps regulate both physical and emotional warmth, increasing body heat and facilitating social bonding. And according to recent research, baby mice deprived of the hormone are less likely to cuddle with other mice or crawl toward heated surfaces.

“We’re working with infant mice, but some of these mechanisms may be relevant to understanding adults, including adult humans,” said Christopher Harshaw, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of New Orleans and first author of the study, which was published last year in the journal Hormones and Behavior.

What is Oxytocin?

Oxytocin has been nicknamed “the love hormone” for its role in social behavior and emotion. Studies suggest it can promote trust, generosity and empathy in humans, and it is involved in bonding between mothers and babies and between romantic partners.

Oxytocin’s real role in human sociality is more complicated, said Zoe Donaldson, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. In certain circumstances, it can also promote negative feelings such as jealousy and schadenfreude. Some researchers now think it functions as a “social booster,” amplifying people’s reactions to any social situation, said Donaldson. Thus, if someone is being bullied, oxytocin might make them feel even more traumatized, whereas if they are kissing a lover, its presence might enhance that romantic glow.

The effects differ between species, since different kinds of animals have receptors for the hormone in different parts of their brains, said Donaldson. But in general, oxytocin appears to help regulate how animals feel when they’re together.

Oxytocin is also important for physical processes such as birth, lactation and temperature regulation. It allows mice to activate a heat-producing tissue called brown fat, and it may reduce heat loss by constricting peripheral blood vessels.

Warm and Snuggly

Huddling is where oxytocin’s social and thermal sides come together. Animals that huddle with one another are obviously being social, but in many cases they are also conserving precious body heat. Past studies have shown that marmoset monkeys and various rodents huddle more when dosed with oxytocin.

To further explore this phenomenon, Harshaw and his colleagues studied baby mice, which are tiny, bald and highly vulnerable to cold. Some of the mouse pups were normal, while others had been genetically engineered to lack oxytocin. The mice were otherwise similar, and the researchers took care to compare mice with matching body weights.

When the researchers lowered the temperature in a mouse enclosure, the oxytocin-deficient pups showed less brown fat activation, and their bodies grew significantly colder than those of normal mice. One might think that would make them even more eager to find external heat sources. But while the normal pups quickly clumped together, the oxytocin-deficient pups failed to form cohesive cuddle puddles.

Of course, the oxytocin-deficient mouse pups might have been alone because no one wanted to snuggle with them. Studies with mice and rats suggest that warmer individuals are more popular with their fellows, while cold ones tend to be pushed to the edge of the group. But the researchers suspected there was more going on with the oxytocin-deficient mice.

“They didn’t seem to be as motivated to huddle,” said Harshaw. “Animals would break apart, and they would just kind of lay there.”

To test their impressions, the researchers placed mouse pups at the cold end of an alley that got gradually warmer toward the other end. When mice were in groups, oxytocin made no obvious difference to their movements up the alley. But when they were placed alone on the cold surface, oxytocin-deficient pups tended to crawl away more slowly than their normal counterparts. Male oxytocin-deficient pups were especially sluggish, and they often settled in cooler spots.

“To me what that says is that it’s not just that they’re not particularly good at making their own body heat. They aren’t even seeking it out,” said Donaldson, who was not involved in the study.

Roots of Modern Love

Together with past research, the recent study suggests that temperature regulation and social bonding share a deep connection, said Dakota McCoy, an evolutionary biologist and doctoral student who is studying mouse huddling at Harvard University in Cambridge. In one plausible scenario, she imagines animals first evolving to tolerate each other so they can share body heat, then gradually developing other reasons to enjoy each other’s company.

At first glance, the idea of getting close to someone for the sake of their body heat can seem kind of Machiavellian, admitted McCoy. But even if human love is rooted in ancient physical needs, that doesn’t make the feelings any less real. And while modern adult humans rarely need to share body heat for survival, we still like to warm up in a loved one’s arms.

“All I could think about as I was reading the paper was how at night, when I’m cold, I try to snuggle up next to my husband. Which is serving both of these purposes,” said Donaldson.

The connection between temperature and social behavior is even embedded in human language. English speakers refer to “warm fuzzy feelings” and “warm” or “cold” personalities, and similar expressions exist in many other languages.

Jeffrey Alberts, a behavioral neuroscientist at Indiana University in Bloomington and one of the authors of the recent oxytocin paper, also co-authored a paper in 1990 that included a discussion of temperature words in several languages. The words had the same sorts of double meanings in every language the researchers looked at, including French, German, Hungarian and Finnish. Some of those languages are not considered closely related, suggesting that the linguistic associations may have arisen independently.

On some level, it makes sense that humans would assign feel-good meanings to words for warmth, said Alberts. After all, he said, most of us mammals are “warm bodies that live in a cold world.”

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Ecology

Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science

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YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Ecology

Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth

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Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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Ecology

COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0

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We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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