‘Mice, fruit flies have emotions’

Specific neurons in the brain were activated in hostile situations.AFP

Specific neurons in the brain were activated in hostile situations.AFP   | Photo Credit: AFP

‘Behaviours wrongly considered to be hardwired’

To a standing-room-only audience that consisted of several research students and veteran life-science researchers, neurobiologist David J. Anderson, of the California Institute of Technology, drove home evidence from several experiments to argue that many behaviours— including aggression and the ability to tell males and females apart—were wrongly considered to be hardwired.

Morever, he emphasised, it also wasn’t true that humans were the only life forms privileged with experiencing emotion. Mr. Anderson, who’s spent decades deciphering the neurons responsible for governing emotion, was the keynote speaker at the 8th Annual Cell Press-TNQ India Distinguished Lectureship Series.

Specific neurons in the brain region, called the ventromedial frontal cortex, in fruitflies, rats and mice were activated when these animals were coaxed into hostile situations or ones where they had the opportunity to court members of the opposite sex. The response of certain neurons was so predictable that Mr. Anderson and his colleagues were able to “read the minds of mice” merely by looking at the computer-generated brain images alone of the rodents. “Given that such activity (aggression, sexual behaviour) in registered in the hypothalamus (a region of the brain connected with the regulation of hormones) of mice and they too are mammals like humans, these findings may have some relevance to behaviour,” he said in response to a question from the audience on whether the emotions of people could be manipulated.

Building on this, he noted, it could be possible to repurpose a drug—now commonly employed in the course of breast cancer therapy—to treat the anger and irritability that accompanies patients of post-traumatic depression. “Such a drug could likely be developed out of India or China because American companies have no incentive to work on testing these drugs as they are off-patent and may not bring in profit,” he added.

As part of the series, Mr Anderson — on his first professional visit to India — will be also be giving lectures in Bengaluru and Mumbai. He would be visiting scientific institutions in each city and meet with students and faculty to learn about the work going on in their labs.

“The Annual Lectureship series is aimed at bringing the highest calibre of global scientists to interact and exchange knowledge with the Indian scientific community,” said a press statement from TNQ.

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