July 12, 2023
UCalgary postdoc helps discover link between common hormone and empathy
Remember the last time someone came to you to share bad news — maybe they didn’t do well on an exam or school project. Did an uneasy feeling of stress or worry wash over you?
UCalgary neuroscientist and postdoc Dr. Ibukun Akinrinade, PhD, has spent years studying how stress is transmitted and the resulting empathy felt by others. Her research is driving innovation and a deeper understanding of the mechanisms at work in our body and mind during stressful situations.
Akinrinade is the first author of a study offering insights into how a well-known hormone plays an important role in the emotional response to stress or empathy. The study was published earlier this year in the Journal Science, and researchers believe it may help them get closer to new treatments for social disorders including autism.
Scientists have long understood the capacity for caring, which is an essential characteristic of social beings including mammals, has prehistoric origins. For Akinrinade’s PhD thesis at the Gulbenkian Science Institute in Portugal a few years ago, she wanted to learn more about how zebrafish — a small tropical fish commonly used for research — responded to stress identified in other fish.
“Our research team found that fish could detect fear in other fish, and then become afraid, too. We then experimented using oxytocin, a hormone associated with empathy in humans, to see how it can be used to regulate the stress response,” says Akinrinade.
Oxytocin is an important regulator of human behaviour, involved in a broad array of neuropsychiatric functions like alertness, memory, cognition or motivation. It’s produced in the brain and released into the bloodstream.
“We investigated how zebrafish react to stressful situations with quick, sharp movements, followed by going completely still. And how other zebrafish who witness this, respond,” Akinrinade says. “We were able to demonstrate that an empathy-like behaviour is regulated by oxytocin in these fish and identify the two regions in their brain that are involved.”
Researchers have named the phenomenon of social beings observing fear in others and responding an ‘emotional contagion’.
“It is regarded as the basis for empathy, I feel what you feel,” Akinrinade says. She is continuing to study the role of oxytocin in emotional contagion within the lab of Dr. Jaideep Bains, PhD, at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. She says they are looking to move further into identifying what aspects of the brain oxytocin regulates during an emotional contagion.
“Hopefully this research will advance towards us recognizing the specific mechanism that regulates emotional contagion and will also evolve toward the development of targeted drug therapies,” she adds.
Akinrinade says the ability to sense and mirror feelings has been fundamental to the survival of social animals such as humans.
She says this study highlights the importance of social interaction and the need to continue developing a clear understanding of what is taking place in the body, also noting studies published following the COVID pandemic demonstrated that individuals who were socially isolated were more prone to socially related disorders.
“As humans, social relationships are very important to us,” she says. “We don’t like to be alone.”
Ibukun Akinrinade is a postdoctoral associate in Physiology and Pharmacology at the Cumming School of Medicine.