Nina Slanevskaya. Interdisciplinary Neuroscience




Social anxiety

When socio-economic life becomes unstable and the background anxiety rises, any unpleasant event can lead to the catastrophe. If we want to assess the level of well-being in the society, we must take into account not only the consumer basket but the psychic and physical health of the population including the level of background anxiety, and it is possible to assess using well-known psychological tests (Kudryavtseva, 2004). Actually, it is the psychological climate in the society, institute, enterprise, school. Kudryavtseva suggests an ideal solution of the problem: the creation of such a social system where social factors do not cause chronic anxiety (Kudryavtseva, 2004). The symptoms of anxiety can be different: from the sharp rise of activity to the sharp fall of activity; inadequate and unmotivated behaviour; torturing expectation of imagined danger and negative feelings; the fear of something unknown. Such internal tension and anxiety can develop into panic and all-consuming fear. Chronic anxiety develops when there is a long-lasting unfavourable and threatening environment. Chronic anxiety becomes the cause of many diseases and abnormal behaviour (Kudryavtseva, 2004). Anxiety and fear have recently become the main emotions of humanity. They are provoked by unfavourable social factors, and under the long exposure to them these factors cause various psychopathological states, that is why these states can be called “social diseases” (Kudryavtseva, 2004). The constant state of anxiety forms the readiness to defend oneself from real or imagined danger. What is the point of treating a man with antidepressants if he comes across a stressful situation of poorly organized society every day?

The neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman states, “The biological and medical sciences are recognizing that a full accounting of human biology cannot proceed without incorporating the social and emotional factors that modulate the functioning and health of biological systems, and may have played a key role in the evolution of those systems. The social sciences are simultaneously embracing the idea that the social mind cannot be severed from the social brain and body. Ultimately, a full understanding of the social mind depends upon a full understanding of how the brain and body are receptive to socioemotional pressures and produce social behavior” (Lieberman, 2006: 1).
Neuroscience has taken the direction towards social sciences (political science, economics, history, sociology, philosophy, etc.) forming new branches of science such as neuropolitical science, neuroeconomics, neurohistory, neurosociology, neurophilosophy, etc. In other words, the interaction of three levels - social, cognitive and neuronal – is applied to a certain sphere of human activities. At the social level motivational and social factors influencing behaviour and experience are studied. At the cognitive level researchers study the mechanisms of processing information. And at the neuronal level in the focus of attention there are mechanisms of brain engaged in cognitive processes. The cognitive level is the level that gives the possibility for interdisciplinary mixture of social sciences and neuroscience. The idea is to connect social disciplines engaged in studies of socio-politico-economic system with the individual reaction on such a system.

Nowadays the academic criteria of scientific value of research are based on materialist ontology. So the achievements in neuroscience and social neurosciences have been mainly accumulated within the framework of materialist thinking. Whatever the point of view on brain-mind may be, the majority of researchers agree that the mind can make the brain work differently, and social factors produce influence upon both mind and brain and, thus, the health of the whole organism. The understanding of mind-brain interaction is especially important for social neurosciences because the conclusions of social neurosciences will be used in the organization of our social life. The wrong understanding of a human being will be followed by the wrong model of society.


A new approach: "from behaviour to genes"

The materialist neuroscientist Antonio Damasio points out the connection between our thoughts and biological health: you can literally die from sad thoughts, because depression damages the immune system (Damasio, 2006). Damasio analyzes the sources of sociopathy, whether sociopathy is caused by inborn anomalous neurophysiology or by sociocultural factors and says that it is important to understand “the degree to which social factors interact with biological ones to aggravate the condition, or increase its frequency, and even shed light on conditions which may be superficially similar and yet be largely determined by sociocultural factors” (Damasio, 2006: 178). Damasio gives the examples of “sick culture” in Germany in the 1930-1940s and in Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime and adds, “I fear that sizable sectors of Western society are gradually becoming other tragic counter-examples” (Damasio, 2006: 179).
Damasio is not the only one who has noticed such connection between the neurophysiological state of the brain and sociocultural factors. N.N. Kudryavtseva and D.F. Avgustinovich (Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk) have studied the expression of genes depending on social factors and insist on using a new model “from behaviour to genes” instead of the traditional model “from genes to behaviour” because it is the social surrounding and social factors that cause the change in gene expression due to the prolonged stress (Kudryavtseva, Avgustinovich, 2006: 33-35). They made an experiment with male mice and studied the state of a mouse after the first meeting with another mouse attacking it and later demonstrating its supremacy over the defeated mouse in a ritual indirect way. During the experiment, two male mice lived in one cage divided into two sections by a transparent partition with holes. The first fight specified them as a winner or a loser. Every day a partition was taken away and the winner demonstrated its aggressiveness and invincibility to the loser. The victim of this aggressiveness acquired depressive behaviour. Attacks could last seconds and had a ritual character, i.e. indirect indication of a possible attack, in other words, the demonstration of hostile behaviour. It could be digging under the partition, damaging the property of the victim, i.e. making a mess of the place that the victim considered its home. The expectation of the unfavourable development of events and social stress lasted for the rest of time. The defeated mouse showed avoidance-approach behavior and social withdrawal for 4 weeks after the experiment even to an unknown mouse. Such behaviour formed under the influence of the negative experience of social defeats is considered to indicate depression. The level of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) significantly increased in the nucleus accumbens of the brain of the defeated mice for 10 days.
Gene expression is the process by which hereditary information from a gene is transformed into the functional product. This process can be modified at all stages: transcription, translation, and post-translation modifications of a cell. The change of the expression of one gene is connected with the change of the structure and function of the cell and can involve a new expression of other genes in the body. The winning male mice had an increase of tyrosine hydroxylase and dopamine transporter mRNA levels in the ventral tegmental area of the brain (Filipenko, Alekseyenko, Beilina, et al., 2001) and a decrease of kappa-opioid receptor mRNA level in this structure of the brain, if compared with the control mice and defeated male mice (Goloshchapov, Filipenko, Bondar et al., 2005). The changes in the expression of these genes reflect an altered state of opioidergic and dopaminergic systems in the brain, as a result of repeated experience of victories. The neurotransmitter dopamine (neurochemical) plays an important role in the reward system producing a euphoric state or pleasure from learning (more victories, more dopamine), meanwhile kappa opioid receptors get activated under the stress (no stress, no activation).
The defeated male mice have an increase of serotonin transporter and monoamine oxidase A mRNA levels in raphe nuclei, if compared with the control mice and winners (Filipenko, Beilina, Alekseyenko et al., 2002). During the developing depression of animals (or people) the largest number of changes takes place in the serotonergic system of the brain (Kudryavtseva, Avgustinovich, 2006).

If people are in the state of anxiety, the specific neurochemical changes in the brain have a long-lasting effect, and it mainly concerns the neurotransmitter serotonin at all stages of its metabolism. In the article “Anxiety as a Social Disease” Kudryavtseva writes that at first, as a result of unavoidable stress, the serotonin system is activated, and the level of serotonin and its metabolite rises as an attempt to suppress anxiety and fear (Kudryavtseva, 2004). Due to the prolonged period of the higher release of serotonin, the depletion of the serotonergic system develops and psycho-emotional disorders appear (especially if there is a genetic predisposition). Other neurotransmitters get involved in this process. The damage to the regulatory function of the brain leads to other physiological disorders: the level of testosterone, sexual activity, and reproductive function reduce; ulcers in the gastrointestinal tract appear; response to pain changes; olfaction becomes worse; psychogenic immune deficiency develops, etc. For example, if tumour cells were transplanted into the animals suffering from anxiety, the tumour grew much quicker than in the control group. Social and individual behaviours change even in the situations not suggestive of danger. If animals in the state of anxiety are given possibility to choose either water or ethyl alcohol, the consumption of alcohol increases, and an experimental alcoholism develops (alcohol has anxiolytic properties; anxiolytics are drugs to relieve anxiety). Such changes are followed by impaired learning and socialization (Kudryavtseva, 2004).
If the oppressed male mice are separated from their oppressors and placed in comfortable conditions, the emotional disorder will not disappear for a long time, which testifies deep changes in the organism. Kudryavtseva and Avgustinovich draw attention to the fact that antidepressants improve metabolism of neurotransmitters minimizing the depressive state, but 50% have recurrence of the disease (Kudryavtseva, Avgustinovich, 2006). Kudryavtseva and Avgustinovich put forward the idea that such relapses can be explained by the stability of the new expression of genes.

The new approach “from behaviour to genes” instead of “from genes to behaviour” can help to study the mechanism of genetic involvement into the development of psycho-emotional disorders (depression, anxiety, pathological aggression, etc.) caused by social factors and social stress.


Social pain

Are the social values based on an intrinsic value of a human being in our society?
Studying the problem of social humiliation Linda Hartling points out that the depth of humiliation can be so great that it can be compared with an open wound that people remember all their life (Hartling, 2007). Even the loss is forgotten over time, but not humiliation. The social pain resembles a physical one and it finds confirmation in neuroscience research. Hartling uses a two-factor analysis: cumulative humiliation and the fear of humiliation. Suicide may be the cumulative humiliation. She suggests the following chain of events:
humiliation => social pain => reduced self-appraisal => impaired self-regulation => increased self-destructive behavior => violence (Hartling, 2007) .

(in Nina Slanevskaya "Brain, Mind, and Social Factors", St.Petersburg, Centre for Interdisciplinary Neuroscience, 2014)

- Kudryavtseva, N.N. (2004) “Anxiety as a Social Disease” in Chemistry and Life – ХХ1 century, No. 11: 10-15 (the title translated from Russian).
- Lieberman, M.D. (2006) “Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience: When Opposites Attract. Editorial” in SCAN (2006) 1: 1.
- Damasio, A. (2006) Descartes’ Error, London, Vintage.
- Filipenko, M.L., Alekseyenko, O.V., Beilina, A.G., Kamynina, T.P., Kudryavtseva, N.N. (2001) ”Increase of Tyrosine Hydroxylase and Dopamine Transporter mRNA levels in Ventral Tegmental Area of Male Mice under Influence of Repeated Aggression Experience” in Molecular Brain Research, 96(1-2): 77-81.
- Filipenko, M.L., Beilina, A.G., Alekseyenko, O.V., Dolgov, W., Kudryavtseva, N.N. (2002) “Repeated Experience of Social Defeats Increases Serotonin Transporter and Monoamine Oxidase A mRNA levels in Raphe Nuclei of Male Mice in Neuroscience Letters, Vol. 321: 25-28.
- Kudryavtseva, N.N., Avgustinovich, D.F. (2006) Molecular mechanisms of social behavior: comments to the paper of Berton et al., in the journal “Neurosciences”, 4(6): 33-35 (the title translated from Russian).
- Hartling, L. (2007) “Humiliation: Real Pain, a Pathway to Violence” in Brazilian Journal of Sociology of Emotion 6(17): 466-479.



Nina Slanevskaya. Interdisciplinary Neuroscience


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