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What if a simple drug could make everyone less selfish?

A team of researchers from the Italian Institute of Technology recently published a groundbreaking study in which they identified the brain neurons associated with prosocial and selfish behavior in mice. And then they figured out how to turn those neurons on and off.

Inspired by the lonely isolation they felt during the COVID-19 quarantine, lead author Diego Scheggia says they were originally intended to “understand the social factors and neurobiological determinants of altruism and self-interest”.

According to a report from Ingrid Fadelli on Medical Xpress, however, Scheggia felt that society had shifted from altruism to “selfish concern and contempt for others” a few years prior to the pandemic. Rather than see the perceived problem as a purely social issue, they decided to find out what role the brain’s natural activity might play in influencing our social outcomes.

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Are we victims of our own neuronal activity? Is that something we can change?

To get to the bottom of it, Scheggia and a team of fellow scientists turned to the world’s most popular analog for the human brain, the humble laboratory mouse. First, they adapted an experiment designed to measure human prosocial and selfish behavior called “Dictator Game”, so that it can be used with mice.

The researchers created a situation where, after earning a reward in the form of food, a mouse was then given the decision whether or not to share that food with peers nearby. Their immediate findings were astounding. According to the team’s paper, “altruistic choice preference was modulated by familiarity, sex, social contact, hunger, hierarchical status, and emotional state matching.”

In other words, they determined that mice decide whether to act selfishly or help others based on whether they like the particular mouse or mice they encounter. This may seem like a common sense assessment, but here’s the fun part: The team then identified the individual neurons and clusters associated with this behavior and introduced chemical interventions to inhibit them.

Essentially, they developed a map of mouse neuronal activity linked to selfishness and prosocial behavior. This could potentially help scientists understand extreme human behavior associated with sociopathy, psychopathy and antisocial violence.

It is important not to get ahead of the investigation here, as it is very early. Not to mention that mouse brains and human brains are not the same thing. That said, this is exciting news for a number of reasons.

As mentioned, it could lead to a better understanding of what goes on in the brains of people who seem to be attracted to extreme choices when making social decisions. This could allow early diagnosis and intervention for a wide range of associated conditions.

In addition, it represents an important milestone in our ongoing pursuit of mapping the entire human brain. There are approximately 86 billion neurons in our brain. When you take into account the potential number of neuronal connections in both space and time and the amount of variance per individual — how many different ways those neurons can interact with each other — the task of mapping what each does becomes incredibly difficult.

Finally, at the far-fetched (and far-future) end of the spectrum, we can envision the use of chemogenetics to train our brains to act altruistically. It would be like taking vitamins that make you more likely to share.

Of course, that also means we can envision the opposite paradigm, one in which our brains are manipulated to treat everyone as an outsider so that we can always prioritize ourselves as the protagonist of any story. We already have that. It’s called ‘social media’.

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