foto: Jakub Ostałowski
On the positive role of contagious fear, human and animal empathy and preparing for the unexpected in an interview with Asst. Prof. Ewelina Knapska, Head of the Laboratory of Emotions Neurobiology at Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology, PAS. She is the leader of ERC Starting Grant project on the control of the amygdala over socially transferred positive and negative emotions.
Anna Kilian: Applying for ERC Starting Grant is the natural continuation of a research project in progress. How long have you worked on the current project?
My research was initiated after I discovered that rat models of emotional contagion can be created and that we are able to observe how the brain reacts when one animal passes its fear to another. This was part of my PhD and was published in a paper in 2006. What makes this phenomenon worth studying in more detail? Emotional contagion is considered a primary form of empathy, an ability upon which advanced forms of empathy are built, such as those in humans and apes. Little is known about those mechanisms controlling social behavior. Ten years ago there was no technology to study brain control over such behavior on the level of neurons. Since optogenetics was developed within neurobiology, we have a technology allowing for manipulating the activity of certain groups of neurons very precisely with the use of light. I decide to make use of it.
You mentioned contagion of fear between animals. What is the purpose of transmitting such a negative emotion?
In the case of fear, getting information from another animal is safer than being exposed to the danger causing fear. In a group of animals, if one of them is attacked by a predator and successfully escapes, it is emotionally stimulated and others can take over its fear. It is an adaptive feature that allows animals to avoid the actual danger thanks to fear. Within my project, though, both negative and positive social emotions will be investigated to find differences between the ways the brain controls them.
Is it possible to say when social emotions developed in humans?
It is a complicated question related to the philosophical discussion on what differs man from animals. Some psychologists regard empathy as a typically human feature, but many studies emerge on evolutionary stages of emotional and cognitive behaviors that led to developing empathy. Chimpanzees and bonobos live in large groups and exhibit behaviors similar to ours, such as mourning their family members, protecting apes born with Down syndrome, etc. We work with rats, whose social behaviors are not that complex. There are studies, though, confirming quite advanced empathic behaviors in rodents. In an experiment, one rat was closed in a cage, while another was left outside; the free rat tried to set the other one free, even when it was tempted with chocolate to quit those attempts. It was only shortly interested in chocolate, and quickly returned to help the rat in the cage. When it succeeded, it often shared its chocolate with the freed rat. We intend to investigate much simpler models of behavior.
What is the role of empathic behaviors?
They enhance the individual’s adaptation to the environment. Living in groups improves chances for surviving, facilitating the search for food and protection against predators. Thanks to reading other group members’ emotional states, animals become better adapted. We are looking for basic social abilities – taking over emotions from another group member. Fear is one of the primary emotions, so brain structures controlling fear in rats and humans are similar. Hence, our findings may be translated onto other species, including man.
Was there any breakthrough in neurobiology in recent years?
About ten years ago the existence of neuronal circuits was confirmed. They consist of groups of connected cells, often within the same brain structures. Neuronal circuits often control opposed behaviors, for example, in one of our works we describe two groups of neurons in the amygdala – one group triggers fear, and the other extinguishes it. No imaging methods allows for obtaining such accuracy in human brain, because it cannot be observed during an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance). Functional experiments on animals prove that neuronal circuits exist, which opens a whole new field for research. One of the questions asked in my project is whether there are groups of cells activated only by social emotions, as opposed to non-social emotions. This problem has not been investigated before. It seems interesting to check.
It surely is interesting, as you managed to convince the jury to approve your project in Brussels. Was there any particularly difficult question during the interview?
The entire interview is difficult because the panel consists of distinguished experts from various fields of neurobiology. They found different levels of my project interesting and asked a wide range of questions – from molecular biology to psychology. Some questions were surprising, but always adequate.
Was the test panel organized by PAS Excellence in Science Department helpful in preparing for the project presentation in Brussels?
It was very helpful. Such a test panel gives us feedback on what is clear in our presentations and what requires clarifying. It also helps to prepare psychologically for many questions that may be asked. It is easier to handle such a situation with practice.
Did you succeed in your first attempt to obtain the ERC Starting Grant?
No, it was the second time I applied. I was invited for the interview last year, but didn’t succeed. Thus, this year I already knew what to expect. Last year the jury had doubts as to the technologies proposed, so throughout the year I gathered additional data and improved that part of the project, which turned out convincing.
Do you think ERC grants are attractive?
They are attractive both because of the amounts offered and the prestige. This grant is a quality certificate, making it easier to find the best team members. In Polish science, it is difficult to hire a good post-doc because of low financing, even more so to employ a foreign expert. In that aspect, the ERC grants offer better perspectives.
Asst. Prof. Ewelina Knapska interviewed by Anna Kilian