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November 18, 2013

Coffee Snorters: Are You a Man Or a Mouse Edition

This is a fascinating theory: fear causes physical changes to the brains (and noses!) of mice, which are then passed from fathers to their offspring:

When a male mouse becomes afraid of a specific smell, this fear is somehow transmitted into his sperm, the study found. His pups will also be afraid of the odor, and will pass that fear down to their pups.

“Parents transfer information to their offspring, and they do so even before the offspring are conceived,” said Brian Dias, a postdoctoral fellow in Ressler’s lab, at an engaging talk about this unpublished data on Tuesday at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.

And why, evolutionarily, would a parent pass down such specific information? “So that when the offspring, or descending generations, encounter that environment later in life, they’ll know how to behave appropriately,” Dias said.

The researchers made the mice afraid of certain odors by pairing them with a mild shock to the foot. In a study published a few years ago, Ressler had shown that this type of fear learning is specific: Mice trained to fear one particular smell show an increased startle to that odor but not others. What’s more, this fear learning changes the organization of neurons in the animal’s nose, leading to more cells that are sensitive to that particular smell.

So what happens when an entire generation grows up in relative security? How long does the effect take to die out?

Two things in this article rang true for the Blog Princess. The first one could well explain the feeling so many happily married people report of experiencing a special connection with their spouse:

“If you ask people about their experience of falling in love, over 90 percent will say that a major factor was discovering that the other person liked them,” according to Dr. Aron...As a result of the interviews, the researchers speculated that the best strategy would be to give a potential date the impression that in general you were hard to get (and therefore a scarce resource worth having) but really enthusiastic about him or her specifically. They tested this notion by using some of the same techniques… and found overwhelming evidence to support their hypothesis.

The second one may well explain why I've always found it incredibly off putting when men brag about how many women they've slept with. Speaking only for myself, such talk generally produces exactly the opposite effect of the intended one:

Conscientiousness is predictive of a number of very important positive elements in life.

Agreeable, conscientious people make better spouses and parents — but disagreeable, non-conscientious people have more sex partners.
The former invest in quality, and it seems like the latter make up the difference in, well, volume.

Looking to settle down? Check if that person has their ducks in a row, is organized and easy to get along with. That’s marriage material.

Schadenfreude is a dish best served cold:

Public school advocate and actor Matt Damon has taken heat for sending his own kids to private school, and now he’s eating his words for comments he made about the Bush family on CNN Friday.

Damon promised to eat his own shoe if any of the Bush family even walked into public schools. He may want to start chewing now:

The Miami Herald reported in 2002 that Jeb Bush initially attended the public Grady Elementary School in Houston before mother Barbara enrolled him in the private Kincaid School closer to where they lived.

Brother George W. attended public schools in Midland, Texas – Sam Houston Elementary and San Jacinto Junior High – before being enrolled at Kincaid when the family moved to Houston.

Tweep @bzaz points out that George W’s kids Jenna and Barbara both attended public schools – Preston Hollow Elementary in Dallas and Austin High School in Austin – and Jenna a few years after graduating college worked as a teacher’s aide at Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School in Washington D.C.

Progressive do-as-we-say, not-as-we-doism is everywhere you look, from big tax-and-spenders like John Kerry mooring his yacht out of state to avoid paying taxes to Al Gore's ginormous carbon footprint to the relationship between charitable giving and political party.

But our favorite example is undoubtedly this one:

Public School Teachers: Nationally, more than 20% of public school teachers with school-age children enroll them in private schools, or almost twice the 11% rate for the general public.

Philadelphia Public School Teachers: 44% enroll their own children in private schools, or four times the national average.

Cincinnati Public School Teachers: 41% enroll their own children in private schools, more than three times the national rate.

Chicago Public School Teachers: 39% enroll their own children in private schools, more than three times the national average.

Rochester, NY Public School Teachers: 38% enroll their own children in private schools, or more than three times the national rate.

San Francisco-Oakland Public School Teachers: 34% enroll their own children in private schools, slightly more than three times the national average.

New York City Public School Teachers: 33% enroll their own children in private schools, three times the national rate.

"Good enough for other people's kids" seems to be a core tenet with these folks.

Joe Queenan on scientific studies:

Drinking too much alcohol makes it hard to drive an 18-wheeler. Really hard. Just about impossible. And excessive use of cocaine falls into the same general category. The study will appear in The Journal of Automotive Obviousness.

Dishonest people can't be trusted. High-level research conducted among duplicitous Swedish twins separated at birth confirms that no matter where a dishonest person grows up, and no matter what his background, he simply can't be trusted. The chronically dishonest are just plain untrustworthy.

Little boys make lots of noise and break things. They are very fond of the word "vroom!" Just in from The Annals of Juvenile Epidemiology.

Athletes aren't as smart as brain surgeons. Though there are exceptions—curling, badminton, Xtreme golf—the study published in The Journal of Cerebral Endorphins asserts that brain surgeons, by and large, are a lot smarter than jocks. "It may be the reason they choose medicine over boxing," says the lead author of the study. "Well, that and small hands."

Posted by Cassandra at November 18, 2013 05:20 AM

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Comments

Back in the day (1950s) public schools were quite good. Where I was raised (Dade County Florida) only "problem" children generally went to private schools, other than parochial ones. Wonder what happened? Oh, purely coincidentally, there were no teacher's unions then.

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at November 18, 2013 09:33 AM

When a male mouse becomes afraid of a specific smell, this fear is somehow transmitted into his sperm, the study found. His pups will also be afraid of the odor, and will pass that fear down to their pups.

This is actually kind of creepy. And if the effect does die out when later generations are raised with nothing to fear, that's even creepier. There's just something weird about sperm "knowing" things. (Yes, I know - I'm setting up a lot of cracks.)

Posted by: Elise at November 18, 2013 10:00 AM

FWIW, I don't take the study as gospel (I don't take any study as gospel), but if this were true, it wouldn't bother me a bit.

I've always had a feeling that memories could be transmitted across generations - that seems like it would have survival value in both the positive and negative sense. We know that nonverbal (chemical, in fact) communication takes place all the time.

I guess I would file this under useful evolutionary adaptations.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 18, 2013 10:11 AM

On the public vs. private thing, I was raised during the 60s and went to mostly public schools. The two best schools I attended, though, were private or restricted admission by test score.

In 4th and 6th grades, I attended a public school that was probably akin to today's magnet schools: you took an exam and if you scored high enough, you could choose to attend. In 11th and 12th grades, I attended a private school that I really hated, but which was a better school than any of the public schools I had attended.

My sons attended slightly more private than public schools, but it was close. With one exception, the private schools were better. I attributed this to two things:

1. It was easier for the private schools to maintain both disciplinary and academic standards b/c they could fail students and kick them out if they were disruptive.

2. Selection bias: the families were ones who valued education enough to pay for school.

Ironically, in college I started at a pricey college and ended up earning my degrees from community colleges and a satellite campus of a private university. I think one can get a decent education at almost any school, provided one is willing to work at it. I do think most private schools are far more supportive of high parental standards.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 18, 2013 10:19 AM

I guess I would file this under useful evolutionary adaptations.

Well, I'd like to know *how* it's happening. The babies of mothers with low cortisol levels seem understandable; the sperm with a nose is a mystery.

I think part of my unease with this is the checkered history of the belief in "the heritability of acquired characteristics". As Wikipedia puts it in their article of Lysenkoism:

These theories depart from accepted evolutionary theory and Mendelian inheritance.

Posted by: Elise at November 18, 2013 10:36 AM

I'd like to know how it's happening too, but it does appear to be happening. There are a lot of things on this earth that I don't understand (gravity being one) but they happen anyway :p

It seems hubristic to me for "scientists" to refuse to accept something because it conflicts with what they already think, or because they don't understand the mechanism yet. Not saying you're doing that - just that it is kind of amusing when you think about it.

I got a kick out of some of the scientists' reactions. Most scientific advances depart from accepted theory to some extent. If they didn't, they wouldn't be advances!

Posted by: Cassandra at November 18, 2013 03:07 PM

I agree that scientists can't (shouldn't) just refuse to believe the evidence because it conflicts with how we think things work - that whole Thomas Kuhn thing. I'd just like to see this replicated and, if it can be, I wonder what it will mean for "accepted evolutionary theory and Mendelian inheritance."

And I still think it's kind of creepy. :+)

Posted by: Elise at November 18, 2013 07:47 PM

What if you're disagreeable but conscientious?

Posted by: Grim at November 18, 2013 08:19 PM

What if you're disagreeable but conscientious?

You mean like the man I married?

Cranky can be very lovable too, under the right circumstances :)

Posted by: Cassandra at November 18, 2013 08:52 PM

I guess I'll have to hope I mean someone like him. :)

Posted by: Grim at November 18, 2013 10:11 PM

Well, you have to admit, Grim, he puts up with a pink camo handbag in the house. That's gotta say *something* about the man.
0>;~}

Posted by: Snarkammando at November 19, 2013 01:43 AM

Trust me - that poor man puts up with a lot :p

Posted by: Cassandra at November 19, 2013 07:25 AM

Well, lots of animals are born already knowing how to do lots of things. Foals walk within hours of being born. Puppies and kittens root around for their mothers nipples almost immediately. Birds avoid certain berries. How do they "know" how to do that?

There has to be some mechanism for hard coding those behaviors into the young.

Perhaps hormonal changes in the father due to the trauma produce more sperm with certain genetic traits. That is, an untraumatized mouse produces 0.5% of sperm with "cheese smell = bad" trait, but a traumatized mouse produces 95% of sperm carrying the "cheese smell = bad" trait.

The sperm themselves don't "know" anything.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at November 19, 2013 09:58 AM

Human babies are afraid of falling long before they have any experience with it. And they concentrate on "face-like" patterns intensely, even as newborns.

The whole idea of gene expression fascinates me. And there are so many other things we don't understand yet.

There's evidence that some viruses can cause leukemia, and I read recently that a hospital in Philly used the HIV virus to turn children's natural immune response against acute forms of leukemia like the one that killed my nephew.

Genetics is such a weird phenomenon - you see some families where certain genes replicate reliably, producing kids who look like carbon copies of one parent. Our family was so much more mixed - you can see glimpses of both sides of the family and both of us in our sons, but they look like themselves rather than just like anyone else in the family.

Amazing stuff, nature :)

Posted by: Cassandra at November 19, 2013 10:14 AM

Just as an aside, all of a sudden intelligent design doesn't look quite so "crazy" :p

Posted by: Cassandra at November 19, 2013 10:16 AM

I've never found the assertion that "Intelligent Design isn't scientific" to be laughable when scientists are doing their damnedest to intelligently design life themselves.

If, one day, we do figure out how to "create life in a test tube". Further let's say we were to design organisms to survive on Mars and planted it there. If one of those was designed to evolve into intelligence, would it be "unscientific" for that life to pursue the truth of it's "intelligent design"?

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at November 19, 2013 11:02 AM

Perhaps hormonal changes in the father due to the trauma produce more sperm with certain genetic traits. That is, an untraumatized mouse produces 0.5% of sperm with "cheese smell = bad" trait, but a traumatized mouse produces 95% of sperm carrying the "cheese smell = bad" trait.

Nice explanation (seriously) but you have to postulate that mice already carry some genetic marker for finding a particular smell "bad". So now I wonder if you can replicate this experiment by tying the bad experience to any smell (which would seem to undercut this explanation) or if this is the only smell, or one of the few smells, where this will work (which would seem to support this explanation).

And I also wonder what would happen if you replicated this experiment (same smell) with female mice, harvested their eggs, fertilized them with non-experimented-on male mice, and implanted the embryos into non-experimented-on female mice. If mice work like humans, I think you'd expect to find the acquired characteristic isn't heritable because eggs are pre-made all at once so - at least in theory - their genetic material wouldn't be affected by this kind of interference. On the other hand, if it was - too weird.

Posted by: Elise at November 19, 2013 11:20 AM

but you have to postulate that mice already carry some genetic marker for finding a particular smell "bad".

Certainly. But given all the other things that many animals essentially "know" at birth (like what foods are poisonous) this doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility. Nor that smell is the mechanism for that association. Smell is, in humans anyway, one of the better memory recollection devices.

I'm not quite sure why you would think that the number of smells the process works on would matter one way or another. If the mice are themselves changing the organization of their own neurons for any given smell (possibly by altering the underlying DNA or altering body chemistry to change the expression of that DNA) I don't see why that same process couldn't be applied to the sperm themselves.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at November 19, 2013 11:40 AM

"Just as an aside, all of a sudden intelligent design doesn't look quite so "crazy" :p"

I'm just glad the He got the udder idea out of His head by the time He got around to Eve.
0>;~}

Posted by: Evil Twin at November 19, 2013 01:06 PM

I'm not quite sure why you would think that the number of smells the process works on would matter one way or another.

Perhaps I misunderstood your original theory; I thought it relied on the presence of the "smell X = bad" genes already existing and the trauma simply increasing their expression in the traumatized mouse's sperm. If, instead, you're postulating that the traumatized mice are re-writing their own DNA then obviously the number of smells doesn't matter.

Unrelatedly, I also wonder about "junk" DNA which, if I understand it (and I probably don't), may not be junk at all but instead may have a role in deciding which genetically encoded characteristics are expressed.

Posted by: Elise at November 19, 2013 02:02 PM

Gotcha.

Re-reading my comment, the one I wrote in my head wasn't the one I put in the little box. :-)

I had meant to generalize to a broader set of sperm manufacturing but forgot to include it.

And I'm with you on "Junk" DNA. Evolution is rarely wasteful. Putting resources into the replication of useless bits (which when done incorrectly can have deadly consequences like cancer) doesn't seem like a good survival strategy. I'd have to assume it's there for a darned good reason even if we don't know what it is.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at November 19, 2013 02:34 PM

the one I wrote in my head wasn't the one I put in the little box

I can relate. :+)


I'd have to assume it's there for a darned good reason even if we don't know what it is.

So maybe the "junk" DNA is the "writable" DNA. I have, of course, no basis for thinking that but it makes for an interesting thought.

Posted by: Elise at November 19, 2013 04:52 PM

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