What Social Distancing Does to a Brain

Summary: Researchers report alterations in specific genes are associated with time in social isolation.

Source: Max Planck Institute

Have you recently wondered how social-distancing and self-isolation may be affecting your brain? An international research team led by Erin Schuman from the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research discovered a brain molecule that functions as a “thermometer” for the presence of others in an animal’s environment. Zebrafish “feel” the presence of others via mechanosensation and water movements – which turns the brain hormone on.

Varying social conditions can cause long-lasting changes in animal behavior. Social isolation, for instance, can have devastating effects on humans and other animals, including zebrafish. The brain systems that sense the social environment, however, are not well understood. To probe whether neuronal genes respond to dramatic changes in the social environment, graduate student, Lukas Anneser, and colleagues raised zebrafish either alone or with their kin for different periods of time. The scientists used RNA sequencing to measure the expression levels of thousands of neuronal genes.

Tracking social density

“We found a consistent change in expression for a handful of genes in fish that were raised in social isolation. One of them was parathyroid hormone 2 (pth2), coding for a relatively unknown peptide in the brain. Curiously, pth2 expression tracked not just the presence of others, but also their density. Surprisingly, when zebrafish were isolated, pth2 disappeared in the brain, but its expression levels rapidly rose, like a thermometer reading, when other fish were added to the tank,” explains Anneser.

Thrilled by this discovery, the scientists tested if the effects of isolation could be reversed by putting the previously isolated fish into a social setting. “After just 30 minutes swimming with their kin, there was a significant recovery of the pth2 levels. After 12 hours with kin the pth2 levels were indistinguishable from those seen in socially-raised animals,” says Anneser. “This really strong and fast regulation was unexpected and indicated a very tight link between gene expression and the environment.”

So which sensory modality do the animals use to detect others and drive changes in gene expression? “It turned out that the sensory modality that controls pth2 expression was not vision, taste or smell, but rather mechanosensation – they actually ‘felt’ the physical movements of the swimming neighboring fish,” explains Schuman.

Sensing water movements

Fish perceive movement (“mechano-sense”) in their immediate vicinity via a sensory organ called the lateral line. To test the role of mechanosensation in driving pth2 expression, the team ablated the mechanosensitive cells within the fish’s lateral line. In previously isolated animals, the ablation of the lateral line cells prevented rescue of the neuro-hormone that was usually induced by the presence of other fish.

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Expression levels of the neuropeptide Pth2 in the zebrafish brain track the presence and density of others in the environment. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Brain Research / J. Kuhl

Just as we humans are sensitive to touch, zebrafish appear to be specifically tuned to swimming motion of other fish. The scientists saw changes in pth2 levels caused by water movements that is triggered by conspecifics in the tank. “Zebrafish larvae swim in short bouts. We mimicked this water stimulation by programming a motor to create artificial fish movements. Intriguingly, in previously isolated fish the artificial movements rescued pth2 levels just like the real neighboring fish,” explains Anneser.

“Our data indicate a surprising role for a relatively unexplored neuropeptide, Pth2- it tracks and responds to the population density of an animal’s social environment. It is clear that the presence of others can have dramatic consequences on an animal’s access to resources and ultimate survival – it is thus likely that this neuro-hormone will regulate social brain and behavioral networks,” concludes Schuman.

About this genetics research news

Source: Max Planck Institute
Contact: Dr. Irina Epstein – Max Planck Institute
Image: The image is credited to Max Planck Institute for Brain Research / J. Kuhl

Original Research: Closed access.
The Neuropeptide Pth2 Dynamically Senses Others via Mechanosensation” by Lukas Anneser, Ivan C. Alcantara, Anja Gemmer, Kristina Mirkes, Soojin Ryu, and Erin M. Schuman. Nature


The Neuropeptide Pth2 Dynamically Senses Others via Mechanosensation

Species that depend on membership in social groups for survival exhibit changes in neuronal gene expression and behaviour when they face restricted social interactions or isolation1,2,3. Here we show that, across the lifespan of zebrafish (Danio rerio), social isolation specifically decreased the level of transcription of pth2, the gene that encodes the vertebrate-specific neuropeptide Pth2. However, 30 minutes of exposure to conspecifics was sufficient to initiate a significant rescue of pth2 transcript levels in previously isolated zebrafish. Transcription of pth2 exhibited bidirectional dynamics; following the acute isolation of socially reared fish, a rapid reduction in the levels of pth2 was observed. The expression of pth2 tracked not only the presence of other fish but also the density of the group. The sensory modality that controls the expression of pth2 was neither visual nor chemosensory in origin but instead was mechanical, induced by the movements of neighbouring fish. Chemical ablation of the mechanosensitive neuromast cells within the lateral line of fish prevented the rescue of pth2 levels that was induced by the social environment. In addition, mechanical perturbation of the water at frequencies similar to the movements of the zebrafish tail was sufficient to rescue the levels of pth2 in previously isolated fish. These data indicate a previously underappreciated role for the relatively unexplored neuropeptide Pth2 in both tracking and responding to the population density of the social environment of an animal.

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