On the 17th November the BBC Newsnight programme featured work by Molly Crocket (Dept of Experimental Psychology) on altruism. On the programme Molly discussed how her research has shown that people were willing to sacrifice on average twice as much money to spare a stranger from receiving painful electric shocks than to spare themselves, despite the decision being secret.
The study, conducted on 80 pairs of adults, was the first to experimentally compare how much pain people were willing to anonymously inflict on themselves or strangers in exchange for money. Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors provide a surprisingly optimistic view of human nature, in stark contrast with previous economic studies claiming people fundamentally care about their own interests over those of other people. Understanding how people balance financial gains against the suffering of others could help to explain how policymakers and business leaders make spending decisions, for example on policies to improve the welfare of citizens or employees.
The Newsnight edition is available on the BBC iPlayer until the 6th December; the piece starts at 28’05”.
A further Oxford Neuroscience paper in PNAS was reported by the BBC Today programme on the 26th November. Gwenaëlle Douaud (Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences) et al., revealed new evidence that shows how neuronal development, ageing, and disease processes are related. It is often held that age-related neurodegeneration in healthy humans recapitulates development: i.e. areas of the brain that are thought to develop later also degenerate earlier. However, MRI studies looking for such a link between development and healthy ageing have so far proved inconclusive.
Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Gwenaëlle, with colleagues from the FMRIB and elsewhere, presented evidence that supports this model mirroring development and ageing. The team analysed brain structural variation using MRI scans across 484 healthy participants (between the ages of 8 and 85). They were able to identify networks of brain regions which develops relatively late during adolescence and shows accelerated degeneration in old age compared with the rest of the brain. This network, associated with intellectual ability and episodic memory, is particularly vulnerable to both schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The results suggests that the common spatial pattern of abnormalities observed in these two disorders, which emerge at opposite ends of the life spectrum, might be influenced by the timing of pathological processes in disrupting healthy cerebral development and ageing.
The Today programme edition is available on the BBC website, the piece starts at 14’00”