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Lab Notes: How anti-anxiety drugs can make fish live longer, how celebrities can ruin charities and more

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A three-month-old baby bonobo plays with its mother at a zoo in Frankfurt in 2008.

Today, Take Two features our Lab Notes with KPCC's science reporter,  Sanden Totten. Every other week we have him in the studio to talk about studies that he may not have had time to get to during his regular schedule, but that still blow his mind.

This week it's all about the animals... and celebrities.

1) Scientists wanted to determine whether animals other than humans felt empathy. So how did they go about testing that? Well, just so you know, empathy is the ability to feel another’s emotion — or to experience an emotional contagion — in the emotionally challenged language of science.

If I frown, you frown.  

Scientists thought studying whether yawns were contagious would count as studying a sort of emotion. While it's up for debate whether a yawn actually counts as an emotion, yawns do convey a state. Furthermore, yawns are found in both humans and apes — specifically bonobos, close evolutionary cousins of humans. 

So scientists from the Natural History Museum of Pisa monitored groups of people and bonobos for five years, recording 1,375 yawns.

They learned that yawns are contagious in both humans and bonobos, and, here’s the interesting part: Both species were more likely to share a yawn with someone else if that person was a close friend, family or a mate. If the ape or person were not that important to the subject, they were less likely to spread yawns between them. 

That suggests that humans are not the only creatures to form close bonds and share our emotions with those we hold dear. Scientists think mirror neurons in the pre-frontal cortex — the part of the brain involved in social behavior — are triggered when certain expressions are seen in others, prompting us to copy them instinctively. 

Thus, the more you like someone, the more likely they’ll make you yawn.
 
2) A new study found that anti-anxiety drugs are helping fish in the wild live longer. The fish end up with these drugs in their systems after humans take them and expel them or flush them down the toilet. They then make their way into the natural environment where they're sometimes absorbed by fish. It's hard to say the exact effect that they have, but past studies have shown it makes them bolder — maybe less fearful, meaning they take more chances and explore more. 

Swedish scientists wanted to see how this would affect the fish over the long term, so they studied Eurasian Perch caught in the wild and exposed them to different levels of a common anti-anxiety drug. As it turns out, the drug helped the perch live significantly longer than those who were clean of any pharmaceuticals.

Which is actually a bad thing.

Fish like the perch are an important part of the ecosystem, but they typically have a high mortality rate. Many die while growing up. Too many perch — or other fish — can throw an ecosystem off balance.

3) Lastly, a new study claims that celebrities aren’t actually very useful at promoting charities. According to surveys conducted at the Universities of Manchester and Sussex, researchers asked people about charities and celebrities and they found that 75 percent of people said that they didn’t respond in anyway to a celebrity appeal to help a cause. Almost 66 percent could not name a single celebrity linked with high-profile charities such as Action Aid, Amnesty International or Oxfam. 

Some celebrities do seem to be able to buck this trend — say a Bono or a Angelina Jolie — but for the most part these celebrity charity campaigns don’t improve chances someone will help that charity.

So, celebrities might boost their own profile by backing a worthy cause, but science shows that the charity won't benefit nearly as much.


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