Is overcrowding in cities bad for your brain?  Do children in preschool learn better because of the social enrichment? Are animals at zoos learning and behaving the way they would in the wild even if they aren’t in normal group sizes?

These are the types of questions behind the research of a Virginia Tech neurobiologist who studies the impacts of the social environment on the brain.

Kendra Sewall, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and an affiliated faculty member of the School of Neuroscience, recently received a National Science Foundation CAREER grant to expand her studies of the "sweet" spot of optimum social interaction — the point at which brain function is improved.

The research uses zebra finches, a songbird that shows social relationships and vocal learning that is surprisingly similar to humans. Prior research has shown that social birds living in larger flocks have super cognitive abilities and greater neuron growth. But if socializing becomes stressful over time, perhaps due to overcrowding or competition, the birds produce stress hormones called glucocorticoids that, in high amounts, are known to impair neural plasticity and compromise learning.

Zebra finches
Zebra finches are highly sociable birds that live in a range of flock sizes, from pairs and small family groups (about two to four birds) to large aggregate flocks (up to 100 birds). Photo by Gloria Schoenholtz.

The new funding will allow Sewall to continue this line of research, as well as increase education and outreach in the field.

She will teach a new course titled Animal Cognition through the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science. The course, available to undergraduate and graduate students, will involve working with local high school classes interested in animal cognition research, and will be available beginning in fall 2018.

Sewall will also work with K-12 teachers to develop an animal cognition module in line with the Virginia Standards of Learning for regional high school classes to use. Four teachers will visit Sewall’s lab in summer 2018 to develop a one-week module that they can take back to their classrooms.

Sewall, who is also affiliated with the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech, an arm of the Fralin Life Science Institute, said the research is important for understanding how changes in resource availability due to climate change or habitat degradation could impact bird social dynamics and ultimately, individuals’ learning and brain function.

But, because zebra finches are a model for human language learning, the research also shines a light on how lifestyle impacts human cognition.

“With the incidence of brain-related disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and autism, on the rise, understanding the brain’s reaction to environmental factors is incredibly important,” said Sewall.

The project is funded for five years by NSF’s Division of Integrative Organismal Systems with grant IOS-1652496.

“This research project is an example of science focused on a single organism and topic — here, a common songbird and how stress impacts it — with the potential to produce results that tell us more about vast groups of creatures, including humans,” said Jodie Jawor, program director for the Behavioral Systems Cluster at the National Science Foundation. “The National Science Foundation’s animal behavior program supports integrative work, such as this, that can help us piece together the rules governing all life.”

The CAREER grant is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award, given to creative junior faculty considered likely to become academic leaders of the future. Sewall is one of three College of Science faculty to receive a CAREER Award this year, the first time that three faculty have won such funding in more than 10 years. The other two faculty members are Julianne Chung, of the Department of Mathematics, and F. Marc Michel, of the Department of Geosciences.

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