Our memory comes from an ancient virus, neuroscientists say
This study is radically changing how we view the process of evolution.
The particulars surrounding how our memory works has baffled neuroscientists for decades. Turns out, it’s a very sophisticated process involving several brain systems. What about on the molecular level? Inside the brain, proteins don’t stick around longer than a few minutes. And yet, our memories can hang on for our entire lifetime.
Recently, an international collaboration of researchers from the University of Utah, the University of Copenhagen, and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the UK, discovered something strange about a protein called Arc. This is essential to long-term memory formation. What they found was that it has very similar properties to how a virus infects its host. Their findings were published in the journal Cell.
In it researchers write, “The neuronal gene Arc is essential for long-lasting information storage in the mammalian brain, mediates various forms of synaptic plasticity, and has been implicated in neurodevelopmental disorders.” They go on to say, “little is known about Arc’s molecular function and evolutionary origins.”
As a result of the study, researchers now believe that a chance encounter occurring hundreds of millions of years ago, led to Arc’s centrality in our memory function today. Assistant professor of neurobiology Jason Shepherd, Ph.D. of the University of Utah, led this research project. He’s dedicated himself to the study of the protein for the last 15 years.
A protein in our memory behaves like a virus. Pictured: the Simian virus 40. Credit: Phoebus87, Wikimedia Commons.
“At the time, we didn’t know much about the molecular function or evolutionary history of Arc,” Dr. Shepherd said in a press release. “I had almost lost interest in the protein, to be honest. After seeing the capsids, we knew we were onto something interesting.” Using electro-microscopy, Shepherd and colleagues studied the protein closely. They realized from an image they’d taken, that the way that Arc assembles itself looks a lot like how the HIV retrovirus operates.
Researchers were intrigued by the idea that a protein could behave like a virus and serve as the platform through which neurons communicate. What Arc does is open a window through which memories can become solidified. Without Arc, the window cannot be opened.
Previous work had shown that Arc is required for long-term memory formation. In one study, mice lacking Arc had little plasticity in their brains and couldn’t recall what happened to them, just 24 hours before. But no one suggested a mechanism mimicking a foreign entity at work, until now.
Shepherd and colleagues now believe that 350-400 million years ago, the ancestor to the retrovirus, the retrotransposon, injected its genetic material into a land-based, four-limbed creature. This led to the development of the Arc protein, as it operates in our neurochemistry today. According to a recent University of Massachusetts study, the same process developed in fruit fries, independently, sometime later, around 150 million years ago.
An HIV capsid. Credit: Thomas Splettstoesser, Wikimedia Commons.
Shepherd and colleagues found that Arc acts like a viral capsid. Capsids are a hard, outer shell which are hollow inside and carry a virus’s genetic information. A virus uses the capsid to spread its genetic material from one cell to another, causing an infection.
How Arc mimics this is, it encapsulates its RNA in order to transfer it from one neuron to another. Elissa Pastuzyn, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow and the lead author of this study. She said in a press release, “We went into this line of research knowing that Arc was special in many ways, but when we discovered that Arc was able to mediate cell-to-cell transport of RNA, we were floored.” She added, “No other non-viral protein that we know of acts in this way.”
The study is changing how we view the evolutionary process. Rather than random mutations, it suggests that organisms may borrow from one another in order to develop. To test the theory, Shepherd and colleagues devised a number of experiments to see whether or not Arc operates like a virus.
What they found was, the protein replicates several copies of itself in capsids, which carry its mRNA inside. They then took these capsids and placed them into petri dishes containing mouse neurons, where they observed Arc transferring its mRNA from one to the next. It appears that activating a neuron triggers more Arc, which causes the release of more capsids, and so a domino effect occurs.
To learn more about this study, click here:
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Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
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