Nencki Institute Seminar

Dear All,

This Thursday, 25th of February 2021, at 3pm, Prof. Ewelina Knapska, head of the of Neurobiology of Emotions Lab and the Vice-President of Centre of Excellence for Neural Plasticity and Brain Disorders (BRAINCITY), will give a lecture entitled: From contagious emotions to social learning.


Observing others in fear or pain affects our emotions. Sharing emotional states of other individuals is considered the simplest form of empathy, which enables us to understand their emotional states. Emotional contagion is well described in many animal species, including rodents, and is typically understood as an automatic process, a mimicry of emotions and behaviors of others. Our recent work in rats shows, however, that negative emotions may serve as warning signals, which do not just trigger stereotypical defensive reactions, but can be used to derive information about proximity of danger and to adjust flexibly the behavioral strategy to environmental challenges. They also show that, depending on whether a demonstrator provides information about an imminent or a remote threat, different neuronal circuits are activated in observing animals. We focused on the central amygdala (CeA), a region which is critically involved in generating motivated behaviors and orchestrating emotional responses in single animals but its role in control of social behavior is not known. We observed that the projections from the cortex and basolateral amygdala to the CeA are differently activated, and that different neuronal populations in the CeA are activated by information about an imminent or a remote threat. Then, we identified the cortical-CeA circuits controlling social interaction, showing that social motivation and social information processing causally depend on the cortical-CeA circuits.

Social motivation and social information processing are prerequisites of social learning, which is defined as learning of the value of stimuli and actions from others. Since our studies, carried out in very simple behavioral models, showed that reading emotions of others can lead to social learning, in the next step we focused on testing animals in more naturalistic conditions, in which animals are embedded in the complex social structures and often interact non-randomly with group members. Using the Eco-HAB, an automated system for tracing voluntary social behaviors and learning of mice living in a group, we found that animals flexibly use olfactory cues from emotionally aroused individuals to adapt to both a familiar and a novel environment. Importantly, the animals display individual variability in social interactions, which seems to be important for information spreading. The developed models can serve to study the neuronal mechanisms of social learning.

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Best regards,
Aleksandra Pękowska

Date of publication
19 February 2021
Date of event