New study proves absence really does make the heart grow fonder

This is one of countless studies that prove the positive impact of social connection and intimacy while highlighting the negative impact of isolation and separation.

concept of love neurons what happens in the brain when we are reunited with loved ones

What happens in the human brain when we are reunited with the ones we love?

Image by magic pictures on Shutterstock
  • New research, led by behavioral neuroscience assistant professor Zoe Donaldson explores what drives our mammalian instinct to create lasting bonds - and what exactly happens when we are apart from people we share those bonds with.
  • Studying prairie voles (who fall under the 3-5% of mammals who, along with humans, are monogamous), Donaldson and her team discovered a unique set of cluster cells that light up when reunited with a mate after a period of separation.
  • This study is just the tip of new developing research that could lead to groundbreaking new therapies for individuals who struggle with these types of connections, including people with autism, people who struggle with mood disorders, etc.

Assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience at CU Boulder Zoe Donaldson has recently led a year-long study of prairie voles, who are in the 3-5% of mammals (along with humans) who tend to mate for life.

"In order to maintain relationships over time, there has to be some motivation to be with that person when you are away from them. Ours is the first paper to pinpoint the potential neural basis for that motivation to reunite," explains Donaldson.

What drives the mammalian instinct to create lasting bonds? This was the question Donaldson and her team sought out an answer for. And not an answer based on philosophy or emotion, but an answer based on neuroscience and hard-proof.

        The study

        two prairie voles concept of mating for life monogamous mammals

        This research ground lead to new therapies for individuals who struggle with this kind of emotional connection.

        Photo by torook on Shutterstock

        Donaldson and her team used tiny cameras and a new technology called in-vivo-calcium imaging to analyze the brains of prairie voles at three separate times:

        1. During their first encounter with another vole
        2. Three days after mating with another vole
        3. 20 days after living in the same area as the mate

        When the voles were together in the same area, their brains looked and reacted the same way. However, after separating the voles, it was discovered that a unique cluster of cells in the nucleus accumbens fired up when they were reunited.

        In fact, the study proved that the longer the voles had been paired before being separated, the closer their bond became and the glowing cluster that lit up became stronger during their reunion.

        It's interesting to note that a whole different cluster of cells lit up upon them being introduced to a stranger vole, suggesting that these specific cells may actually be there for the purpose of forming and maintaining bonds with others.

        This study confirms that monogamous mammals (voles and humans alike) are very uniquely hard-wired to mate with others. We have a unique biological drive that urges us to reunite with people we care for, and this drive can be one of the reasons we fall under the 3-5% of mammals that seek out monogamy.

        What does this mean for the future of human behavior studies?

        As far as research goes, this is quite groundbreaking - as this could potentially give us insight into various kinds of therapies for individuals who are autistic or individuals who struggle with severe depression and/or other disorders that make these kinds of emotional connections difficult.

        There is still much to learn about these specific series of events that happens when we're reunited with a mate after a period of separation. For example, it's unclear if this "neuronal code", so to speak, is associated with emotion in humans the same way it is associated with desire in voles.

        According to Donaldson, the research in this department is only just beginning, and the definitive outcome of this study is that mammals are quite literally hardwired to be monogamous mammals.

        Social connection and intimacy is essential to our growth and development

        This isn't the first time a study like this has been conducted, even though this particular study has unveiled new neuronal clusters that had not been previously accounted for.

        There have been many other studies of mammals (from small rodents all the way up to human beings) that suggest we are not only hardwired to seek out intimate connections through monogamy, but that we are also extremely and profoundly shaped by (and perhaps even dependent upon) the experiences we have with those mates.

        Brene Brown, a University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work (who specializes in social connection), explains:

        "A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs aren't met, we don't function as we were meant to."

        This idea is backed up by countless studies, including Dr. Helen Fischer's revolutionary study back in 2005, which included the very first fMRI images of "the brain in love".

        This study concluded that the human brain doesn't just work to amplify positive emotions when we experience romantic love, but that the neural pathways responsible for negative emotions (such as fear and anxiety) are actually deactivated.

        U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

        Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

        U.S. Navy ships

        Credit: Getty Images
        Surprising Science
        • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
        • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
        • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
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        Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

        She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

        Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
        Technology & Innovation

        This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

        Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

        CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

        So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

        The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

        This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

        Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

        Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

        I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

        I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

        CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

        Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

        Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

        Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

        Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

        Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

        "Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
        DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

        When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

        We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

        Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

        Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

        Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

        There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

        We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

        Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

        Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

        This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

        Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

        Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

        Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

        There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

        What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

        Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

        Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

        "There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
        DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

        There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

        When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

        Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

        Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

        We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

        Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

        Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

        The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

        Ancient megalodon shark was even bigger than estimated, finds study

        A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.

        Megalodon attacks a seal.

        Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
        Surprising Science
        • A new method estimates the ancient megalodon shark was as long as 65 feet.
        • The megalodon was one of the largest fish that ever lived.
        • The new model uses the width of shark teeth to estimate its overall size.
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