Political Animals and Anthropological Brains

Today’s New York Times has an article “Political Animals (Yes, Animals),” which recounts the many lines of research on the politics of animal life.  Rhesus monkeys, dolphins, wolves and yes, even humans make their appearance in the article.  Research has increasingly shown that these “nonhuman animals behave like textbook politicians.  In these “highly gregarious and relatively brainy species,” individuals “engage in extraordinarily sophisticated forms of politicking, often across large and far-flung social networks.” 
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Mice brains on stress

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIn February 2006, a research team at University of Texas and Tufts University published a piece in Science on how experience could modify the structures in the brain that affect the production of dopamine through brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) (abstract here). The research team used ‘social defeat’ to explore ‘the neurobiological mechanisms through which psychosocial experience alters the activity of the mesolimbic dopamine pathway’; in other words, the malleable system that can induce structural changes in the brains of mice in response to persistent patterns of social interaction.The abstract, while a little thick, suggests all sorts of intriguing possibilities:

Mice experiencing repeated aggression develop a long-lasting aversion to social contact, which can be normalized by chronic, but not acute, administration of antidepressant. Using viral-mediated, mesolimbic dopamine pathway–specific knockdown of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), we showed that BDNF is required for the development of this experience-dependent social aversion. Gene profiling in the nucleus accumbens indicates that local knockdown of BDNF obliterates most of the effects of repeated aggression on gene expression within this circuit, with similar effects being produced by chronic treatment with antidepressant. These results establish an essential role for BDNF in mediating long-term neural and behavioral plasticity in response to aversive social experiences.  

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Monkey Makes Robot Walk!

Where does this leave the evolution of human bipedalism?  Is there some mystery “bipedal instinct”?  A bipedal “organ” in the brain?  I’ll let you decide… 😉 

Here’s the article.  It’s a great piece about the importance of training, the relevance of a body (build it and the brain will come…), and the management of different tasks by different areas of the brain that work in conjunction.  For the culturally inclined, the study authors argue that for Idoya, the monkey in question, her “motor cortex, where the electrodes were implanted, had started to absorb the representation of the robot’s legs — as if they belonged to Idoya herself.”