Thursday, October 8, 2015

Heroes of the Zombieverse: Robert Sapolsky

If a rat is a good model for your emotional life, you're in big trouble. - Robert M. Sapolsky

When I first decided I wanted to go back to school to learn about dog behavior, I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to study. I just didn't know enough biology to know how to frame my questions. I clearly remember one day talking to a PhD student about my interests, and she said: "Have you heard of the HPA axis?" I shook my head and she said (a bit darkly), "You will."

The HPA axis is the set of hormonal processes that govern the mammalian stress response, and Robert Sapolsky is its king. He didn't discover it (Hans Selye set that train in motion when he isolated cortisol), but he is the great explainer of what it means for your body and brain to have long term stress. His talk on stress, depression, and neurobiology is a dizzying hour in which he weaves together the effects of hormones and neurotransmitters on different brain regions and leaves you with a deep understanding of the mechanisms underlying depression and how much we have left to learn about how to cure it.

He brings a dry sense of humor to his work, making even his peer-reviewed publications a fun read. I tweeted last week about the latest Sapolsky offering in which he discussed the role of connections between neurons in the amygdala in anxiety disorders: "The road to a crippling anxiety disorder is paved with perky amygdaloid synapses." First use of the word "perky" in a scientific paper? Perhaps at least its first use to describe a synapse.

He's a committed science communicator, publishing books and magazine articles and making his behavioral biology course at Stanford free on YouTube. He seems to be writing somewhat regularly for Nautilus these days. If you want to learn about what stress is and what it does to your body, I recommend his book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, which was my introduction to the biology of stress lo these many years ago.

So yeah, he studies baboons and he writes about humans. And he talks a lot about the ways in which humans are different from other animals.  But these mechanisms of how stress affects the brain and the body, the health consequences of high stress levels, exactly what is different about the brains of really anxious individuals... these questions are absolutely relevant to dogs. For his work on these questions, for his passion for science communication, and for his quirky personality, Sapolsky gets to be the first of the Dog Zombie heroes in this series.


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