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Brains May Have A Playfulness Switch

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By Author: Anton Bluman
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Blocking the activity of certain cells reduces play behavior in rats.

Rats are extremely playful creatures.They love playing chase and they literally jump for joy when tickled. Central to this play- fulness, a new study finds, are nerve cells in a specific region of the brain.

Neurons in the periaqueductal gray, or PAG, are active in rats during different kinds of play, scientists report July 28 in Neuron. Blocking the activity of those neurons makes the rodents much less playful.

The results give insight into a poorly understood behavior, particularly in terms of how play is controlled in the brain.

When scientists tickled lab rats (one shown) and played a game with them, nerve cells in a brain region called the PAG became active. The team suspects that this region controls playfulness.“There are prejudices that it’s childish and not important, but play is an underrated behavior,” says Michael Brecht, a neuro- scientist at Humboldt University of Berlin.

Scientists think play helps animals develop resilience. Some researchers even relate the behavior to optimal functioning, For ...
... people, “when you’re playing, you’re being your most creative, thoughtful, interactive self)” says Jeffrey Burgdorf, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who was not involved in the study. This is the opposite of some depressive states, and Burgdorf’s own research aims to turn understanding of the neuroscience of play into new therapies for mood disorders. In the study, Brecht and colleagues got lab rats used to being tickled and played with in a game of chase-the-hand.

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