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Scientists Find Neurological Basis of Risk-Taking Trait

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How do we calculate the right time to take a risk? And why are some people (and dogs, and fish, and rats) bigger daredevils than others? Scientists working with rats say they’ve traced the answers back to a brain region called the nucleus accumbens. They published their findings this week in the journal Nature.

Animals and risk have a curious relationship. Scientists have tested the risk-taking behaviors of many species (including humans), and nearly all of them, when taken as a whole, are more conservative than they need to be. But within each species, there are individual animals who seem to throw care to the wind, and even the most conservative individuals take risks from time to time. 

“Risky behavior has its moments where it’s valuable,” psychiatrist, bioengineer, and study co-author Karl Deisseroth said in a press statement. “As a species, we wouldn’t have come as far as we have without it.”

A little risk-taking is important to keep a species, and an individual, going. But, Deisseroth notes, a predilection for dangerous choices is a liability. “I’ve seen patients whose aberrantly high-risk-seeking activity resulted in accidents, addictions and social, financial or occupational failures that exposed them to a lot of harm and blame.” 

The researchers were looking at the brain’s reward system, which uses hormones like dopamine to motivate us to seek out or avoid objects or experiences, from an angry boss to a cheeseburger. Inside your reward system, and the reward system of other animals, is a structure called the nucleus accumbens (NA). Your NA contains two categories of dopamine receptor cells called DR1 and DR2.

For this experiment, the researchers focused on DR2 cells. They implanted teeny-tiny optical fibers in the brains of lab rats, then taught the rats to gamble. (Fun fact: this is not the first time rats have learned to play the odds.) 

Each rat was set up with a little game center equipped with a hole. When they felt like playing, the rats could poke their noses into the hole, which would trigger the appearance of two levers. Pulling one lever produced sugar water—the same amount every time, no matter what, like a steady paycheck. The other lever was more like a freelance career. Most of the time, pulling lever 2 yielded a little bit of sugar water, but every so often it would pay off with a much bigger helping. The rats could (and did) play the game 200 times a day. 

As expected, about two-thirds of the rats repeatedly went for the dependable sugar water salary. The other third were bred-in-the-bone freelancers. Even after the researchers switched the levers, the rats kept to their preferences. But just like in the real world, some of the conservative rats occasionally went for the risky lever instead. If their risk paid off that first time, they’d keep taking the risk. If it didn’t, they’d go back to their steady sugar paycheck.

While the rats were gambling the day away, the researchers were watching their DR2 cells. They found that just before the conservative rats chose a level, DR2 activity spiked. When the scientists used the optical fibers to light up the risky rats’ DR2 cells, they became more risk-averse, but only as long as the fibers were lit. As soon as the light went off, they went back to their risky behavior. 

Then the researchers gave the rats small doses of pramipexole, a Parkinson’s disease drug that is notorious for causing impulsive gambling in patients. Sure enough, once the drug was in their system, the salaried rats turned to the high-risk freelance life. 

In other words, high DR2 activity in the nucleus accumbens kept conservative rats conservative. “It looks as though we have found a brain signal that, in most individuals, corresponds to a memory of a failed risky choice,” Deisseroth said. “It seems to represent the memory of that recent unfavorable outcome, manifested later at just the right time when it can, and does, modify an upcoming decision.” 

“Humans and rats have similar brain structures involved,” said Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “And we found that a drug known to increase risk preference in people had the same effect on the rats. So every indication is that these findings are relevant to humans.”

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Good News, Dog Parents: You Can Teach Puppies as Well as Their Canine Moms Can
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If you’ve ever adopted a puppy, you probably know how frustrating it can be to teach your new family member the basic tenets of common decency, like not to pee on the carpet or tear up a whole roll of toilet paper.

In other areas, though, pups are rather impressive learners, capable of mimicking some human behaviors. In fact, for some tasks, they learn just as effectively from watching people as they do from watching other dogs, including their own mothers, a new study in Nature revealed.

Researchers from Hungary and the UK took 48 young puppies of various breeds and studied the conditions under which they can be taught to open a puzzle box containing food. The experiment revealed that the puppies were able to learn how to open the box regardless of whether the task was first demonstrated by a person, their mother, or an unfamiliar dog. In other words, not only are puppies capable of social learning, but they're able to learn tasks from humans they don't know—in this case, the experimenter.

However, researchers were surprised to learn that the puppies were more likely to learn how to open the box by watching an unfamiliar dog than by watching their own mothers. That may be because puppies spend more time looking at—and thus, learning from—an unfamiliar dog that intrigues them. This differs from other species such as kittens, which “learn to press a lever for food more rapidly from their mother than from an unfamiliar adult,” the study notes.

In addition, the puppies were able to perform the task again after a one-hour break, indicating that they had retained some memory of the learning experience.

The ability of dogs to learn from humans has been recorded in previous research. A 2015 study revealed that dogs learn better by demonstration (or the “do as I do” method) than training techniques that involve a system of punishments and rewards. The "do as I do" approach probably isn't the most practical method of teaching your pup to do its business outside, but if you already have an adult dog at home, your new puppy can follow the older dog's lead and learn by example.

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Michael Hutchinson
Spiders Can Fly Through the Air Using the Earth's Electric Field
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
Michael Hutchinson

Every so often, otherwise Earth-bound spiders take to the air. Ballooning spiders can travel hundreds of miles through the air (and, horrifyingly, rain down on unsuspecting towns). The common explanation for this phenomenon is that the spiders surf the wind on strands of silk, but there may be other forces at work, according to a new study spotted by The Atlantic.

In the research, published in Current Biology, University of Bristol scientists argue that Earth's atmospheric electricity allows spiders to become airborne even on windless days. To test their hypothesis, the researchers exposed spiders in the lab to electric fields similar to those naturally found in the atmosphere.

When the electric field was turned on, the spiders began to exhibit behavior associated with ballooning—they "tiptoed" on the ends of their legs, raised their abdomens, and released silk. Spiders only exhibit this behavior when ballooning. And when they did become airborne, the spiders’ altitude could be controlled by turning the electric field on and off. When the electric field was on, they rose through the air, but when it was off, they drifted downward.

This provides a potential explanation for why spiders take to the skies on certain days but not others, and how they can fly in calm, windless weather— something scientists have puzzled over since the early 19th century. (Even Darwin was flummoxed, calling it "inexplicable," The Atlantic notes.) However, the researchers note that these electric fields might not be totally necessary for ballooning—wind alone might work perfectly fine on some days, too. But understanding more about when and how spiders become airborne could help us predict when there will be large masses of arachnids flying through the skies (and hide).

[h/t The Atlantic]

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