Monday, September 30, 2013

Can Elephants Get Embarrassed? Spindle Cells and Social Emotions

By Sophie Wasserman

     At Think Elephants International, we talk a lot about the incredible cognitive capabilities of elephants, like their ability to recognize themselves in a mirror or understand cooperation, but a (relatively) recent neuroscientific discovery just might show us how elephants are capable of such complex social thought. In 2009, a team of researchers led by John Allman found von Economo Neurons (VENs) in the brains of African and Asian elephants. Named for the man who first discovered them in 1929, VENs are also called spindle neurons, because of their elongated spindle-shaped cell body. They are four times larger than the average brain cell and exhibit an atypical, elongated shape (see figure below).

Left: Typical pyramidal neuron in the brain
Right: von Economo neuron
via Wikimedia Commons

            So what’s the big deal? First, VENs are rare, once believed to only exist in the brains of humans and apes. But after testing hundreds of animals, researchers have shown that certain species of whales and dolphins, as well as elephants, also possess spindle cells. Second, and more importantly, spindle cells are found almost exclusively in the frontal insula (FI) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) (see figures below). These regions have a crucial role in generating social emotions like compassion, guilt, shame, or embarrassment, feelings that require an understanding of another person's opinion. The FI and ACC are also responsible for abilities like self-monitoring, perspective-taking, and even having a sense of humor. In other words, we use these regions when we try to interpret another person’s intentions, when we face a difficult moral dilemma, when we exhibit self-control, or when we recognize that we’ve made an error; in essence, the FI and ACC help us to gauge the emotions of those around us, and then enable these mood states to influence our own.

Frontal insula highlighted in yellow
via Wikimedia Commons

Anterior cingulate cortex highlighted in yellow
via Wikimedia Commons

         Allman’s working theory is that VENs are responsible for rapid adaptation to changing social contexts, because their large size allows them to transmit information faster than almost any other neuron. Like a link to our own mental mood ring, the spindle cells tell other areas of our brain how our friends es like we nsible forve  feel about us, saturating different parts of our cortex in a specific emotion and allowing for alterations in our behavior to suit the occasion. They could be the reason why we feel embarrassed by our parents, they probably allowed our ancestors to gauge who was trustworthy in battle, and they are a likely explanation for why elephants can understand the concept behind cooperation. Awareness of “other” is first dependent upon the distinction of “self,” and spindle cells facilitate the system by which we use input from the “other” to regulate the actions of the “self.”
            Supporting Allman’s theory, VENs in humans emerge mainly during the first three years after birth and become most active around the same age that toddlers start exhibiting mirror self-recognition and social emotions like guilt and shame. Studies of patients with autism, a spectrum of disorders characterized by a lack of social intuition, showed that the patients exhibited misaligned or abnormally located spindle cells. However, from this study alone, we cannot deduce which came first: social impairment or atypical VENs.

Toddler exploring a mirror; recognition of self
typically develops around 15-18 months of age
via Wikimedia Commons
            More compelling evidence supporting the role of VENs in self-awareness and social monitoring comes from the collaboration of Allman with William Seeley, a neurologist studying a neurodegenerative disease called frontotemporal dementia (FD). Patients with this disease lose social and emotional self-awareness, empathy for those around them, and “theory of mind,” or the ability to attribute a mental state (beliefs, opinions, knowledge and intent) to another individual. They become erratic, irresponsible, and insensitive. Upon closer examination, their brain damage occurred almost exclusively in their VENs. In fact, while up to 70% of the spindle cells in the FD patients’ ACCs were destroyed, the various other neurons that make up the ACC were largely untouched, pointing towards VENs as a crucial factor in the complex social processes lost when patients develop frontotemporal dementia.
Yellow box: spindle cell in the ACC of a healthy adult
via Wikimedia Commons
             However, larger cells like spindle cells could simply be a function of larger brains. In order to connect the increasingly distant parts of the cortex, bigger animals may have just developed faster, longer neurons. Research has shown that rock hyraxes and manatees, the elephant’s closest living relatives, do not have VENs, nor do monkeys, armadillos, sloths, or elephant shrews, but these animals all have smaller brains. Future clarification could come from studying the brains of giraffes or rhinos—animals with larger brains and bodies but not necessarily greater intellect. If the presence of spindle cells is not simply linked to an increase in size but is in fact only present in species with self-awareness like apes, dolphins, and elephants, then this is strong evidence that spindle cells play a central role in monitoring self and social influence.

Scientists need to examine other large animals, like giraffes,
 for the presence of VENs
via Wikimedia Commons

            So what does this mean for elephants? Possibly nothing besides the fact that they have massive brains with big neurons. Possibly, and more excitingly, it could mean that elephants may even be capable of more complex social emotions, feelings like shame, embarrassment or pride. These cross-species comparisons may have revealed a key piece of the cognitive puzzle.  Studying elephant intelligence and social cognition could be crucial to understanding a part of ourselves that makes us human -compassionate, cooperative and self-aware- and that maybe being “human” isn’t so unique after all.

Photo credit: Think Elephants International

Chen, I. (2009, June). Brain cells for socializing. Smithsonian magazine

Hakeem, A. Y., Sherwood, C. C., Bonar, C. J., Butti, C., Hof, P. R., & Allman, J. M. (2009). Von Economo neurons in the elephant brain. The Anatomical Record292(2), 242-248.

Seeley, W. W., Carlin, D. A., Allman, J. M., Macedo, M. N., Bush, C., Miller, B. L., & DeArmond, S. J. (2006). Early frontotemporal dementia targets neurons unique to apes and humans. Annals of neurology60(6), 660-667.

Cartoon of dendritic tree of normal pyramidal cell and spindle cell by Selket via Wikimedia Commons

Insular cortex via Wikimedia Commons

Sagittal MRI slice with highlighting indicating the location of the anterior cingulate cortex by Geoff B Hall via Wikimedia Commons

Baby kissing mirror image by roseoftimothywoods via Wikimedia Commons

Very high magnification micrograph of the spindle neurons of the cingulate, LB-HFE stain by Nephron via Wikimedia Commons

Giraffe at the Monarto Zoo by John Goodridge via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

TEI's Education Program: Unity in Diversity

by Preeyanoot Surinkaew

When I started as a member of the Think Elephants International (TEI) team, I asked myself, “What kind of education program would best promote TEI’s aim?”  Our goal is to discover how we can best help conserve the dwindling populations of African and Asian elephants. TEI tries to do this by following a two-pronged approach:

·         First, we promote further scientific research on elephant intelligence and allow for a better understanding of how we can help the species.
·         Second, we educate each new generation on topics including animal behavior and environmental conservation.

I do not have much background about elephants or science. I graduated with a Bachelors degree in Elementary School Education in 1996. Besides working as a teacher in a primary school, I put my knowledge about child development into practice through activities with children in my village near Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand. During my time running this program, I developed many relationships with a network of teachers and friends who gave me opportunities to extend my experiences and knowledge.

As part of our Earthwatch program, we teach English to children in Chiang Saen. 

Through my experience with the children in my village, I also discovered the impact of modernization, which has led to present-day complexities and fragmentation of knowledge. In other words, the children in my village were learning a certain subject in order to perform well rather than because of their curiosity. I also feel that Buddhism is the root of Thai culture, and that we can use its value to engage society. For this reason, I decided to further my education by attaining a Masters degree in Buddhist Studies at Chiang Mai University and to enroll at the Sophia University Institute in Florence, Italy, where I got Masters Degree in Principles and Perspectives of a Culture of Unity (Politics).

The experiences and knowledge I gained have enriched and widened my perspective about the world. I have come to understand that education plays a very important role as a solution for the fragmented way of thinking encouraged in Thai schools. We must spread education as it relates to Thailand and its people, especially the degeneration of natural space. It is critical that we have a dialogue between people of many diverse perspectives—including those with scientific backgrounds as well as those with real-world experiences—to unite for this cause. 

At TEI, diverse people meet and share their knowledge to help reach our shared goal of educating Thai children about elephant conservation and research. We come from different countries, different backgrounds, and different cultures. We share and reciprocate thoughts, questions, and inspirations that provoke one another during lab meetings. Through the shared interest in conserving elephants, we learn about the essence of living: cooperation and interrelation. This can also be related to the common roots of Thai and Asian cultures. Our work helps us to integrate actual socioeconomic and environmental issues to help us improve the scientific skills of future generations.

The TEI team brings together people with very different backgrounds. 

I have found that the elephant-sized impact we are making comes from our common experience as members of TEI and represents the perfect means toward achieving the goals for our education program.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Conservation: Complexity, Constraint, and Community

By: Elise Gilchrist

In January of 2012 I boarded a plane headed to Turks and Caicos, a small island chain in the Caribbean. I would be spending a semester studying marine conservation and resource management with the School for Field Studies. Among lectures, SCUBA diving, and field research, I saw firsthand how humans are devastating our world’s oceans. In fact, I was directly involved in measuring how the community I lived in was stripping its reefs and surrounding water of the resources it depended on.
But the question that plagued me was: How do we solve this worldwide problem? How can I help solve this local problem? Should I strut into town with presentations, facts, and figures proving that the people were rapidly damaging the environment? Should I offer this struggling community some of my “Western” knowledge and show them a “better way”? Should I yell and shake them by the shoulders, explaining that if they continue removing seafood at an unsustainable rate, their ecosystems are bound to collapse? How do I show them that what they are doing is wrong?

 Spiny lobster is one of the most important sources of income for people living on South Caicos.
Let’s rewind my story for a moment a so I can describe to you the other ways that I spent my semester. Once a week I went to the local primary school to tutor a young girl named Cassandra. Cassandra was struggling to keep pace with her other classmates in math and reading, so during our hour together, we worked through her assigned problem sets. If she remained focused for the full hour, and we completed the lesson early, we would get to play a game together. I then spent weekends with my friends enjoying the low-key nightlife the town offered. I shared many jokes in Darryl’s restaurant and learned the skill and flare necessary to play dominoes on a rickety table from a group of fishermen in Chicken Bar. In retrospect, I spent half of my semester methodically studying the long-time degradation of a marine ecosystem and the other half enjoying experiences with newly-gained friends in the village.

Cassandra with a mouthful of cake on one of our last days together.

Now let’s revisit my question of how to show the community that the surrounding ecosystem was collapsing. Should I go into town and tell the guys at the fishing docks that they should not fish anymore and therefore not support their families? Or, should I go to the school and explain to Cassandra that her father is destroying the coral reefs? This struggle taught me the most important lesson I gained in college: Conservation is not just about collecting and presenting hard scientific facts, but it is a complex issue that must include consideration of the local community, especially if you seek to develop long-lasting management plans.
            Interestingly, this is not a new idea. In the 1980s and 90s the conservation movement saw a shift from ”fortress conservation” to a strategy that more actively involved the community. Fortress conservationists believed that creating protected areas to keep human disturbance to a minimum was the best way to safeguard wildlife. This shift in philosophies led conservationists to involve surrounding communities in decision-making and implementation of management plans. Community-based conservation is not a foolproof plan, however, and there have certainly been many grave failures as well as a number of reassuring successes. Conservation is a case-by-case, exceedingly complex issue, but long-term solutions have little hope of sustaining without the support of surrounding communities.

One of the mahout's daughters showing her comfort with and affection for the elephants she has grown up around.
How are we applying this same idea to conserving Asian elephants in Thailand? Think Elephant International’s education initiatives are designed to teach Thai students about topics including animal behavior, elephant biology, and conservation. By instilling a respect for wildlife and an understanding of humans’ impacts on the conservation status of animals, like elephants, students learn that their actions have potentially negative consequences. Furthermore, a student participating in one of our programs may grow up to be a government official who can have a lasting impact on the conservation status of elephants. A program like ours aims to directly change apathy into action in the next generation of government officials, community leaders, and consumers in Thailand.

A photo taken after we taught a lesson on elephant anatomy at a local Thai school.