Issue 10

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In this issue:


  • How mice comfort each other in times of stress and what goes on in their little brains.

  • A quick vaccine update (it's probably not what you think).

  • The mind-body connection during fear learning.


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Gather around, things are about to get ~wholesome~

Who doesn't love a good cuddle? Or as scientists like to call it, "affiliative social touch" (nerdy, we know). Physical contact is one of the main ways that mammals console one another during times of distress. Given the importance of social touch to our well-being, scientists have long wondered how these behaviors come about. In a new paper, researchers outline what goes on in your brain when you hug your loved ones.

The experiment: First, the scientists stressed out some mice by forcing them to swim in a pool of water (relatable, no one wants to be shoved into a pool). They then placed each of the stressed mice in an enclosure with a second, relaxed mouse to observe their social interactions. At first, the stressed mice behaved anxiously and hid in the corner. Upon seeing this, the chill mice began to groom their stressed-out buddies to comfort them. This affiliative social touch in the form of "allogrooming" (aka the grooming of someone else) worked wonders — the stressed out mice who were groomed by their pals came out from hiding more readily and returned to a more normal pattern of behavior.

That's adorable

We dig stories with happy endings. The scientists then peeked at the brains of the groomer mice to figure out what drives them to allogroom. They found that a subset of neurons in the medial amygdala (MeA) region of the brain was extremely active while the mice engaged in grooming. They also discovered that if they artificially suppressed the activity of these neurons, the mice groomed their peers less. The scientists concluded that neurons in the MeA support allogrooming behavior in mice and play an important role in their social lives.

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The Leak: Physical touch is vital to feelings of kinship, and not only for humans. According to this new study, there might very well be neurons in the MeA region of your brain that can prompt you to console your loved ones with a hug. Now if only there was a way to use this knowledge to make our cats cuddle with us more...


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Wondering what to put on your wish list for Santa this year?

How about some shiny new vaccines? We know what you're thinking, and no, we're not talking about the coronavirus. While the world has been laser-focused on inoculating people against COVID-19, scientists have also been diligently working on vaccines for other diseases (remember those?). This month, we received not one, but two exciting updates.

What's the latest?

Let's start with Alzheimer's Disease (AD). You may recall in one of our very first issues, we discussed some of the neuroscience behind AD. If you've forgotten (don't worry, we forgive you), the TL;DR is that individuals with AD often have an excessive amount of protein known as beta-amyloid in their brains. A group of scientists just developed a new vaccine that can reduce amyloid levels by teaching the body's immune system to attack this protein. Mice who were given the vaccine also showed an improvement in memory and neuron health, suggesting that vaccination could stave off the devastating symptoms of AD.

That's pretty exciting!

And we aren't done yet. If you've ever gotten an annoying tick bite, we have some good news for you. According to a new paper, an mRNA-based anti-tick vaccine might be the solution to your itchiness blues. The vaccine works by teaching the body's immune system to target proteins found in the saliva of ticks (gross). This causes the tick to detach from the host much sooner than it normally would have, which in turn reduces the odds that the tick could infect someone with a dangerous illness like Lyme's disease. Guess you can tick worrying about that off your list.

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The Leak: Scientists are hard at work figuring out ways to prevent the onset of various diseases. Thanks to their efforts, vaccines that help your body fight AD and Lyme Disease might soon become a reality (once they make it through rigorous clinical trials). Now that you know how they work, we hope that if the day comes, you'll be prepared to roll up your sleeve and get your vax on.

⭐ A huge shoutout to Dr. Joe Langan for sending us these papers through the Leak Curator program! ⭐


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Who’s still having flashbacks from that Halloween movie binge (me)

Ever wondered why some things are just so scary and what you can do about it? Fear is a complicated feeling that your brain needs to balance. Too much, and you become paralyzed by it. Too little, and you act like a dangerous jackass. How does your brain keep track of fear and maintain it in a healthy range? That’s the question a group of scientists set out to address in their latest paper.

The experiment: First, the researchers repeatedly exposed some mice to the sound of a tone paired with an electrical zap. Over time, the mice learned that the tone meant a zap was coming, and they began to freeze in place when they heard the dreaded sound (poor babies 😔). The researchers then ceased the electrical zaps but continued to play the tone to see how long the mice would keep freezing from fear. While they did this, the scientists measured heart rate and neural activity in an area of the brain known as the insular cortex.

What did they find?

Insular cortex neurons steadily increased their activity as the mice learned to anticipate the impending zap. Once the zaps stopped and the mice figured out that they needn’t be afraid of the tone anymore, activity in insular cortex decreased. Interestingly, these changes in neural activity were very highly correlated with changes in heart rate. This suggests that the brain might rely on external physiological measures to regulate its activity and strike that delicate but necessary balance when it comes to fear.

Anything else?

We’ll be real with you…there were a lot of experiments packed into this brief paper. We covered some key ones, but if you’re curious, we recommend checking out the entire paper.

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The Leak: Activity in the insular cortex appears related to the way we experience fear. What’s more, this activity is likely held in fine balance by your heart rate. So the next time your date turns on a horror movie, breathe deep and calm your pulse if you want to avoid any pesky nightmares.


In case you missed it:


  • Researchers who use EEG scalp recordings have often had an implicit racial bias based on hair type. Not anymore! 🧠

  • A new paper suggests why it might be harder to learn how to manipulate some objects compared to others. 🤔

  • Submit papers for us to write about and earn rewards! 🏆

  • Look out for our next issue in 2 weeks (every other Wednesday)! 🙌



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