Hexbyte Glen Cove Early-life social connections influence gene expression, stress resilience thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Early-life social connections influence gene expression, stress resilience

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Hyena mom licking her cub in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Credit: Kay E. Holekamp

Having friends may not only be good for the health of your social life, but also for your actual health—if you’re a hyena, that is. Strong social connections and greater maternal care early in life can influence molecular markers related to gene expression in DNA and future stress response, suggests a new University of Colorado Boulder study of spotted hyenas in the wild.

Researchers found that more social connection and maternal care during a hyena’s cub and subadult, or “teenage,” years corresponded with lower adult hormone levels and fewer modifications to DNA, including near genes involved in immune function, inflammation and aging.

Published this week in Nature Communications, the study is one of the first to examine the association between early-life social environments and later effects on markers of health and in wild animals.

“This study supports this idea that, yes, these early experiences do matter. They seem to have an effect at the and future stress response—and they’re persistent,” said lead author Zach Laubach, a postdoctoral fellow in ecology and evolutionary biology.

As far back as the 1950s and 60s, laboratory research has drawn associations between early life experiences in rodents, primates and humans and behavioral and physiological differences later in life. One landmark study published in 2004 also showed that the offspring of rats who got licked and groomed more by their mothers had less DNA methylation in a gene involved in regulating stress response. This kick-started the desire for more evidence that early life experiences could be related to patterns of modification in genes that influence stress and health.

One of the missing pieces in the past 20 years of research has been the ability to study this relationship in .

Enter the Masai Mara Hyena Project. Launched by co-authors Kay E. Holekamp and Laura Smale of Michigan State University in the 1980s, the project has collected more than 30 years of uninterrupted data on hyena populations in Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. With this invaluable resource for studying animal behavior, evolution and conservation, the researchers have been able to utilize generations of data on individually known animals to draw connections between their interactions, behaviors and biological markers.

“Being able to measure behavior, physiology and from the same population has allowed us to dig deeper into the possible mechanisms,” said Laubach, who has been working with data from this project for nearly a decade.

Healthy stress response

Hyenas are ideal for such research as they are devoted mothers, have a strict social hierarchy and follow a consistent timeline for raising their cubs. Instead of giving birth to larger litters, they typically have one or two cubs at a time. Soon after birth, the cubs move into a communal den, where they are integrated into their peer group. For the next year, they still nurse and their mother licks and grooms them, but after that the cubs start to wander out of the den and, like teenagers, learn to start making their way in the world.

The researchers found that the more socially connected hyenas were during their teenage years, the lower their baseline stress hormone levels were later in life. This generally indicates a healthy stress response: Stress hormones can be elevated in an appropriate situation—like when being chased by a lion or a higher-ranking hyena—and when nothing’s happening, levels of stress hormones remain low.

“So if you have more friends as a subadult, essentially, you have lower stress hormone levels as an adult,” said Laubach. “This suggests that the type, timing and mechanisms that link these early life experiences with stress seem to be important not only in controlled laboratory settings but also in the wild, where animals are subject to natural variation.”

In general, hyenas, like other vertebrates, benefit from the effects of stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) mobilizing energy, increasing their heart rate and shutting down non-essential functions, like digestion or reproduction, when escaping a dangerous situation. However, there are significant physical drawbacks to these processes occurring chronically, day after day in humans or other animals as the result of chronic stressors. That’s why having a healthy stress response is so critical.

“We need these stress hormones because they are critical to a variety of basic biological functions,” said Laubach. “And in the right context, like when escaping a predator, they can save your life. But when elevated chronically, these hormones can be detrimental to your health,” said Laubach.

Time travel through DNA

The researchers also wanted to find out if the relationships between early life social experiences and how stress presents later in life is managed by molecular mechanisms.

To do this, Laubach and his co-authors measured and analyzed the level of care and interaction the animal received in early life and their associations with certain modifications to its DNA later in life. These modifications can, through a process known as DNA methylation, end up changing the expression of certain genes, which can in turn, affect an animal’s physiology or behavior.

The researchers found that the maternal care hyenas received during their first year of life, as well as their social connections after den independence, corresponded to differences in DNA methylation levels.

“This echoes a growing body of epidemiological work which studies how the timing of an exposure affects a health outcome. The idea is that, as an organism develops, there are certain points in time, often referred to as sensitive periods, when an exposure has a larger and a more persistent effect than if that exposure occurred at a later point in time,” said Laubach.

More information:
Zachary M. Laubach et al, Early-life social experience affects offspring DNA methylation and later life stress phenotype, Nature Communications (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-24583-x

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Social identity within the anti-vaccine movement thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Social identity within the anti-vaccine movement

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

A study of more than 1,000 demographically representative participants found that about 22 percent of Americans self-identify as anti-vaxxers, and tend to embrace the label as a form of social identity.

According to the study by researchers including Texas A&M University School of Public Health assistant professor Timothy Callaghan, 8 percent of this group “always” self-identify this way, with 14 percent “sometimes” identifying as part of the anti-vaccine movement. The results were published in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities.

“We found these results both surprising and concerning,” Callaghan said. “The fact that 22 percent of Americans at least sometimes identify as was much higher than expected and demonstrates the scope of the challenge in vaccinating the population against COVID-19 and other .”

Researchers also found that participants who scored high on the anti-vaccine measure were less trusting of scientific experts and more individualistic. Additionally, study results show that there is increased opposition to childhood vaccine requirements among those who self-identify as anti-vaxxers.

The study serves as a “blueprint” for other researchers to further examine how socially identifying as an anti-vaxxer impacts health policies and public health. Callaghan notes that Americans socially identifying as anti-vaxxers adds another layer of complexity to mitigating the anti-vaccine movement. Changing a core feature of one’s underlying is a difficult task—one that likely cannot be fixed with traditional messaging.

Moving forward, Callaghan and other members of the research team hope to investigate how endorsement of the anti-vaccine label varies across the country based on states and levels of rurality, as well as interventions that might reduce individuals’ social attachment to the label.

More information:
Matt Motta et al, Identifying the prevalence, correlates, and policy consequences of anti-vaccine social identity, Politics, Groups, and Identities (2021). DOI: 10.1080/21565503.2021.1932528

Social identity within the anti-vaccine movement (2021, June 4)
retrieved 5 June 2021
from https://phys.org/news/2021-06-social-identity-anti-vaccine-movement.html

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Blind trust in social media cements conspiracy beliefs thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Blind trust in social media cements conspiracy beliefs

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Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

The ability to identify misinformation only benefits people who have some skepticism toward social media, according to a new study from Washington State University.

Researchers found that people with a strong in information found on were more likely to believe conspiracies, which falsely explain significant events as part of a secret evil plot, even if they could identify other types of misinformation. The study, published in the journal Public Understanding of Science on March 5, showed this held true for beliefs in older theories as well as newer ones around COVID-19.

“There was some good and in this study,” said Porismita Borah, an associate professor in WSU’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication and a corresponding author on the study. “The good news is that you are less susceptible to conspiracy theories if you have some media literacy skills, one of which is being able to identify misinformation. But if you blindly trust the information you find on social media, those skills might not be able to help.”

Identifying misinformation is just one part of media literacy, Borah pointed out, and people may need a deeper education around social media to avoid falling for conspiracy theories.

For the study, the researchers surveyed 760 people recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing website. The participants were roughly split between male and female as well as Democrat and Republican. The majority, 63.1%, used Facebook and 47.3% used Twitter daily. They answered a range of questions related to the level of their social media news use and trust as well as ability to identify misinformation.

The participants were also asked to rate the truth of several COVID-19 conspiracy theories, such as the belief that the virus was a weapon of biological warfare developed by foreign countries. They also were presented with older conspiracies to rate, such as that the was a hoax and that Princess Diana was killed by a British intelligence agency.

The researchers found that a greater ability to identify misinformation lowered beliefs in all conspiracy theories—except for those who had high levels of trust in social media information. This is particularly problematic because other research has shown that once a conspiracy belief takes hold, it is very hard to convince the believer that it is false.

“The patterns around trust is one of the most important findings from our study,” said Borah. “We need to go deeper into what this trust means.”

Borah and her co-authors, recent WSU Ph.D. Xizhu Xiao and current doctoral student Yan Su, suggest that may play a role in this trust—that people want to believe the words of political figures they admire, whether what they say is actually true or not. Borah said more research is needed to understand why appeal to people and how best to combat them as there can be serious consequences.

“There are different levels of danger with these theories, but one of the prominent conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19 is that it isn’t true, that the virus is a hoax and that can be really dangerous: you’re putting yourself, your family members and your community at risk,” said Borah.

The researchers advocate for making media literacy part of the educational system and starting it well before college. They argue that such education should include a better understanding of how information can be manipulated as well as environments, news production and dissemination.

“There’s a long list of tasks to do to keep ourselves well informed,” Borah said. “I think there is hope with literacy and a better understanding of the information environment, but it is a complicated process.”

More information:
Xizhu Xiao et al, The dangers of blind trust: Examining the interplay among social media news use, misinformation identification, and news trust on conspiracy beliefs, Public Understanding of Science (2021). DOI: 10.1177/0963662521998025

Blind trust in social media cements conspiracy beliefs (2021, March 5)
retrieved 6 March 2021
from https://phys.org/news/2021-03-social-media-cements-conspiracy-beliefs.html

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Social class still dictates graduate job trends thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Social class still dictates graduate job trends

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Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Policies that offer sustained support are needed to ensure people from lower socio-economic groups can reap the benefits associated with a degree, researchers say. Adequate grants, mentoring on campus and tailored career advice are among the provisions that would help students make timely and smoother transitions into good graduate jobs. Making research-intensive universities more accessible to disadvantaged students would also assist the process, according to the study by the University of Edinburgh and University College London. Previous research on graduate job inequalities analyzed outcomes at just one or two points following graduation, providing only snapshots of occupational destinations.

Long-term perspective

This study examines the career trajectories of degree holders across their life and analyzes how these vary according to students’ social origins.

Data was taken from the 1970 British Cohort Study—a multi-disciplinary survey monitoring the development of babies born in the UK during the week of 5–11 April 1970. The results show that graduates originally from lower social classes have more diverse and less stable career paths than the more structured routes of their advantaged counterparts. Graduates from less privileged backgrounds are less likely to enter top-level in their 20s and more likely to enter, and remain, in lower social classes.

“Employment inequalities among graduates show that not only does the final destination matter, but also the timing and sequencing of different activities within the career paths,” says Dr. Adriana Duta.

Key factor

The relatively late age at which less advantaged students is key to some of these patterns, researchers say, as older graduates are more likely to be employed in non-graduate jobs. This finding suggests that from disadvantaged backgrounds may have improved occupational outcomes if they go to university sooner rather than later. The study found that career outcomes for better-off students were helped by the relatively high numbers—compared with disadvantaged students—who attended research-intensive universities.

Graduates from these universities are more likely to enter high professional and managerial jobs early on in their .

“There are clear social inequalities in labor market outcomes among graduates and this already uneven playing field is likely to get worse because of growing job uncertainty,” says Dr. Bozena Wielgoszewska.

Partial explanation

Educational factors—such as university attended, subjects studied and degree grade—only partly explain why disadvantaged students are more likely than their better-off peers to spend most of their working lives in non-graduate jobs. Researchers say further research is needed to uncover the other family-related factors behind this finding.

The study from the Understanding Inequalities project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is published online in the journal Advances of Life Course Research.

A blog by Dr. Adriana Duta, Dr. Bozena Wielgoszewska and lead researcher Professor Cristina Iannelli, of the University of Edinburgh explores the issues further.

More information:
Different degrees of career success: Understanding inequalities in graduates’ employment pathways: www.understanding-inequalities … es-of-career-success

Social class still dictates graduate job trends (2020, November 13)
retrieved 14 November 2020
from https://phys.org/news/2020-11-social-class-dictates-job-trends.html

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