Monday, 19 September 2011

Animal magic all in the amygdala

Children, generally speaking, are interested in animals. Not all animals and not everyone likes the same animals but show kids a dog, a horse or even an ant crawling on the ground, and it is most likely that you will get some kind of positive response. Take children to a wildlife park or an aquarium and for at least one animal, you can almost see the cogs whirring as they take in this living, moving object in front of them. I've seen it in action many times, most notably on a recent trip to an aquarium and the response to seahorses i.e. bewilderment. Indeed children are often interested in animals that don't even exist anymore. Nearly 20 years after Jurassic Park, dinosaurs and all things dino-related still have the ability to mesmerise (and terrify!).

A recent study by Florian Mormann and colleagues* published in Nature Neuroscience offers some clues as to why humans might be so interested in animals and our potential innate ability to notice and direct our attention to animals. I'm not the first to talk about this study by the way as witnessed by this entry by the BPS Research Digest. Anyhow, the study carried out on 41 patients receiving treatment for drug-resistant epilepsy involved mind-mapping of various parts of the brain. When it came to showing pictures of animals, neuronal activity seemed to peak in the right amygdala of patients; such activity later found not to be related to their participant's epilepsy. The authors concluded that such activity may be evidence for the amygdala as a dedicated part of the brain related to animals as part of our evolutionary relationship with animals as predators and food.

Whilst this was a relatively small study, Mormann and colleagues were very detailed in their examination of the participants involved and their mapping of the brain areas 'lighting up' in response to the animal stimuli over other things like people, landmarks and objects. The amygdala is part of the limbic system which, as described in a previous post on rats being attracted to cats, is thought to be quite an ancient part of the brain evolutionary wise. It perhaps makes sense that we would have a dedicated centre for animal recognition given our close relationship with them down the centuries over relatively new additions to our environment like buildings and everyday objects like telephones and TVs. Who knows in a few thousand years time we might have a dedicated brain centre for things like the computer (in whatever form it takes then).

This work could potentially offer some explanation why animals so strongly feature in relation to many conditions including cases of autism spectrum conditions. Interventions such as hippotherapy (horses not real hippopotamuses), swimming with dolphins and assistance dogs have all, at one time or another, come under the spotlight in relation to autism. I must admit that at times I have been a little 'snooty' about the claims behind individual interventions such as the dolphin therapy; assuming that any child, autistic or not, would probably enjoy some contact with dolphins and questioning how exactly such an experience might long-term affect the presentation of autism. If we are to extrapolate the Mormann findings to these experiences, could there be some kind of connection with the amygdala which has been suggested to show some relationship with autism? Who knows, but it does offer an interesting targets for further research and perhaps puts relationships like the one between Temple Grandin and her cattle-huggers into a new light.

To finish, children growing up in the UK in the 1970s-1980s perhaps will remember one man for making animals our friends, Johnny Morris. Animal Magic.

* Mormann F. et al. A category-specific response to animals in the right human amygdala. Nature Neuroscience. August 2011.