Saturday, February 19, 2011

Exciting in PLoS ONE: Chernobyl Birds Have Smaller Brains

'Animals living in areas contaminated by radioactive material from Chernobyl suffer from increased oxidative stress and low levels of antioxidants. Therefore, normal development of the nervous system is jeopardized as reflected by high frequencies of developmental errors, reduced brain size and impaired cognitive abilities in humans. Alternatively, associations between psychological effects and radiation have been attributed to post-traumatic stress in humans.

Here we used an extensive sample of 550 birds belonging to 48 species to test the prediction that even in the absence of post-traumatic stress, there is a negative association between relative brain size and level of background radiation. We found a negative association between brain size as reflected by external head volume and level of background radiation, independent of structural body size and body mass. The observed reduction in brain size in relation to background radiation amounted to 5% across the range of almost a factor 5,000 in radiation level. Species differed significantly in reduction in brain size with increasing background radiation, and brain size was the only morphological character that showed a negative relationship with radiation. Brain size was significantly smaller in yearlings than in older individuals.

Low dose radiation can have significant effects on normal brain development as reflected by brain size and therefore potentially cognitive ability. The fact that brain size was smaller in yearlings than in older individuals implies that there was significant directional selection on brain size with individuals with larger brains experiencing a viability advantage'.

Read full story here: Møller AP, Bonisoli-Alquati A, Rudolfsen G, Mousseau TA (2011) Chernobyl Birds Have Smaller Brains. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16862. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016862