Pioneering new study on dopamine and stress

Summary: A neuroimaging study on house sparrows reveals changes in the dopaminergic system could be a physiological mechanism underlying the negative behavioral effects of chronic stress. The findings shed light on stress and resilience in wildlife and humans.

Source: Louisiana State University

A biologist at Louisiana State University conducted a pioneering research study that could help us to better understand the role of dopamine in stress resilience in humans through analyzing wild songbirds. This study could lead to increased prevention and treatment of stress-related disorders.

Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that is important for learning and memory. Department of Biological Sciences Assistant Professor Christine Lattin, and colleagues conducted this study of wild songbirds showing that dopamine is important in responding to chronic stressors, which can help wildlife conservation efforts in response to environmental stressors such as habitat destruction, natural disasters, extreme weather events and increases in predation.

Lattin, who is the lead author on the study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, applied a biomedical imaging technology called Positron Emission Tomography, or PET, scans that are used commonly on humans but rarely on wild animals to quantify dopamine receptors in house sparrows.

“This study is exciting because it is the first time PET scans have been used in wildlife to quantify dopamine receptors in the brain. Developing this technique has opened the door to being able to scan animals and release them back into the wild,” she said.

“We need to know how these wild birds are coping with stressors and responding to changes to the environment so we can understand how to best protect them.”

In addition to the biomedical imaging, Lattin and colleagues tracked changes in the birds’ body mass and hormone levels, and observed their behavior using a remotely operated video camera to study wild house sparrows’ response to captivity over four weeks. The birds were scanned after being brought in to the lab and then again four weeks later. By using PET scans, they were able to study how the stress of captivity affected the birds over time.

They found that one type of dopamine receptor decreased over time during captivity, which suggests that birds became less resilient to stress over time. The greater the decrease in dopamine receptors, the more they exhibited anxiety-related behaviors such as feather-ruffling. All of the wild birds also decreased body mass.

This shows a dopamine stick and ball model
They found that one type of dopamine receptor decreased over time during captivity, which suggests that birds became less resilient to stress over time. The image is in the public domain.

“These physiological, neurobiological and behavioral changes suggest that songbirds are not able to habituate to captivity, at least over short periods of time. It is very important that scientists studying stress in wildlife find more ways to study them in their natural habitat,” Lattin said.

This research complies with all existing laws and regulations and the Ornithological Council’s Guidelines for the Use of Wild Birds in Research.

About this neuroscience research article

Louisian State University
Media Contacts:
Christine Lattin – Louisiana State University
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“In vivo imaging of D2 receptors and corticosteroids predict behavioural responses to captivity stress in a wild bird”. Christine R. Lattin, Devin P. Merullo, Lauren V. Riters & Richard E. Carson.
Scientific Reports. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-46845-x


In vivo imaging of D2 receptors and corticosteroids predict behavioural responses to captivity stress in a wild bird

Individual physiological variation may underlie individual differences in behavior in response to stressors. This study tested the hypothesis that individual variation in dopamine and corticosteroid physiology in wild house sparrows (Passer domesticus, n = 15) would significantly predict behavior and weight loss in response to a long-term stressor, captivity. We found that individuals that coped better with captivity (fewer anxiety-related behaviors, more time spent feeding, higher body mass) had lower baseline and higher stress-induced corticosteroid titres at capture. Birds with higher striatal D2 receptor binding (examined using positron emission tomography (PET) with 11C-raclopride 24 h post-capture) spent more time feeding in captivity, but weighed less, than birds with lower D2 receptor binding. In the subset of individuals imaged a second time, D2 receptor binding decreased in captivity in moulting birds, and larger D2 decreases were associated with increased anxiety behaviors 2 and 4 weeks post-capture. This suggests changes in dopaminergic systems could be one physiological mechanism underlying negative behavioral effects of chronic stress. Non-invasive technologies like PET have the potential to transform our understanding of links between individual variation in physiology and behavior and elucidate which neuroendocrine phenotypes predict stress resilience, a question with important implications for both humans and wildlife.

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  1. There are a few key facts omitted from this report, including the fate of the birds involved, who were all eventually killed after extended captivity. Dr. Lattin and a team of researchers from Yale University captured 21 wild birds in 2016 and subjected them to the trauma of long-term captivity. These highly social birds were housed alone in cages, restrained in cloth bags for thirty minutes at a time to induce acute stress, and held in captivity for eight weeks or more before being killed. Some of these birds were apparently used in multiple experiments. The main conclusion from this experiment was that wild birds do not habituate well to captivity, and wildlife should be studied in their habitat—a realization that is far from groundbreaking.

    Birds are intelligent and highly attuned to their environment, and many species form close familiar and communal bonds. Although birds experience many of the same emotions that we do, their physiology differs from ours and experimental results in birds do not mirror humans or other animal species. Additionally, birds themselves vary widely in their physiological responses, and findings in one bird species do not necessarily correlate with another species.

    These experiments lack real-world applicability, and if Dr. Lattin and her team want to help wild birds, she should stop harming and killing them, and instead adopt noninvasive and observational studies that will truly benefit wild animals.

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