Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Longer Days Bring 'Winter Blues' -- For Rats, Not Humans

Apr. 25, 2013 — Most of us are familiar with the "winter blues," the depression-like symptoms known as "seasonal affective disorder," or SAD, that occurs when the shorter days of winter limit our exposure to natural light and make us more lethargic, irritable and anxious. But for rats it's just the opposite. 

Biologists at UC San Diego have found that rats experience more anxiety and depression when the days grow longer. More importantly, they discovered that the rat's brain cells adopt a new chemical code when subjected to large changes in the day and night cycle, flipping a switch to allow an entirely different neurotransmitter to stimulate the same part of the brain. 

Their surprising discovery, detailed in the April 26 issue of Science,demonstrates that the adult mammalian brain is much more malleable than was once thought by neurobiologists. Because rat brains are very similar to human brains, their finding also provides a greater insight into the behavioral changes in our brain linked to light reception. And it opens the door for new ways to treat brain disorders such as Parkinson's, caused by the death of dopamine-generating cells in the brain. 

The neuroscientists discovered that rats exposed for one week to 19 hours of darkness and five hours of light every day had more nerve cells making dopamine, which made them less stressed and anxious when measured using standardized behavioral tests. Meanwhile, rats exposed for a week with the reverse -- 19 hours of light and five hours of darkness -- had more neurons synthesizing the neurotransmitter somatostatin, making them more stressed and anxious. 

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