Research in rats has revealed that social cooperation is influenced by genetics and that it has a brain expression
Social skills are a variety of skills and abilities that help an individual to create interpersonal relationships and communication with the environment. There are many factors that can impair these skills (for example, autism). Without appropriate skills, it is difficult to create relationships and social interactions, cooperate with those around you and be part of the peer group, and feelings such as rejection and loneliness may arise.
Prof. Avi Avital from the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurobiology at the University of Haifa and his team investigate the trait of sociability (in addition to emotional and attentional regulation), and focus on social cooperation. Prof. Avital says: "Social cooperation is necessary for daily functioning, for the well-being and soul of every person in almost every field."
As part of their latest research, Prof. Avital and his team performed a series of experiments. In the first experiment, two groups of rats - male and female - ran in a maze that was specially developed for this purpose. In order to reach the reward (sucrose) waiting at the end of the maze, the rats had to cooperate - run together for about fifteen minutes between three unmarked areas. Only a coordinated transition between all three resulted in the end of the maze and the desired reward. The rats were run through this maze about ten times, over several days. The more rewards they earned, the better collaborators they were defined as. At the end of the experiment, the researchers calculated who the best and worst collaborators were (according to the number of rewards received). They then paired the best with the best and the worst with the worst. The offspring that were born were also put into the maze later in their lives - and went through the same process including mating. So, over and over again - for ten generations.
The result: the best got better and better from generation to generation (obtained more and more rewards), while the worst got worse and worse (over time, the rewards they were entitled to receive dropped to almost zero). "We received a graph of all ten generations, which indicates a consistent improvement or deterioration, and we asked to find out if the social cooperation that contributed to this is innate, genetic or acquired, environmental (for example thanks to the benevolent care of the mother at the beginning of life, in the first three weeks)."
To answer this question, the researchers conducted another behavioral experiment: the good males were paired with the good females, and so were the bad males and females. After that, half of the offspring born to the good females were transferred to the care of other good females, and the same was done in the group of bad females. In addition, half of the offspring of the good females were transferred to bad females. And the opposite - half of the offspring of the bad females were transferred to good females. Thus four new groups of descendants were created. The researchers tested their social cooperation in the maze, and found that the good offspring, even those raised by another good female or a bad female, continued to cooperate well (obtained more and more rewards), while the bad offspring, even those raised by a good female, did not change (Still had trouble getting rewards). That is, unequivocal evidence was obtained that social cooperation is an innate, genetic trait, and is not influenced by the growing environment.
The researchers photographed the females and the offspring in the first three weeks of their lives. That's how they noticed the fact that the females that were worst at cooperation actually invested more in caring for and raising their offspring (for example, they cleaned and nursed them more). Prof. Avital: "This is a form of compensation. The bad females know that the offspring will resemble them in social cooperation so they invest in them much more than the good females. But it didn't help them - the offspring's social skills remained poor."
In another experiment, the researchers wanted to check if the reward is the one that really leads to the cooperation. To this end, they gradually lowered the sweetness value of the sucrose that was waiting for the groups at the end of the maze and in one of the rounds they even replaced it with water. It was found that even so, the good ones remained good and the bad ones remained bad. Prof. Avital explains that "from this finding it is possible to understand that the reward of the collaborators is the collaboration itself. Apparently they enjoy working together."
Later, the researchers scanned the brains of the good and bad rats with an MRI and found higher activity in the good ones in three brain regions - the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for executive functions such as attention and decision-making), the striatum (which is also responsible for executive functions and is also related to motor skills); and the hypothalamus (which, among other things, is responsible for the secretion of oxytocin - the "love hormone" - which plays a role in sociability). Later, with the help of a research grant from the National Science Foundation, the researchers intend to examine the genetic mechanism that leads to the increased neural activity that is apparently related to their social skills. "If we find out which genes and proteins are responsible for social cooperation, we may be able to start developing drugs based on them to treat disabilities such as autism," Prof. Avital concludes.
Prof. Avi Avital, 49, married plus three children (10,12, 8, XNUMX) ("smart and cute"), lives in Kibbutz Sherid, drums and travels in his spare time (motorized field trips).
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