Dan McCloskey: Deciphering the Brain’s Impulse to Help

Dan McCloskey, College of Staten Island

Are some people destined to be helpful and sociable because they produce larger than normal amounts of a particular hormone? And are people who don’t produce enough predisposed to autism, schizophrenia and other conditions that make them less sociable? The answers may be in a CUNY scientist’s research into a thumb-sized mammal whose ancestors burrowed underground 35 million years ago.

President Obama recognized the significance of this research by granting Dan McCloskey, an associate professor of psychology at the College of Staten Island, a rare Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. This is the highest honor that the United States government bestows on science and engineering professionals early in their independent research careers.

In 2016, Obama honored 105 scientists who were named by federal agencies. McCloskey and 20 other researchers were nominated by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has supported McCloskey’s research since 2012; CUNY also helps fund his work.

Dan McCloskey

The NSF says McCloskey’s research combines “modeling, neurophysiology, and systems biology/network science that will transform the field of social neuroscience by providing a comprehensive approach toward understanding the role of neuropeptides in complex behavioral systems.”

Specifically, collaborating with the CUNY High Performance Computing Center at the College of Staten Island, he examines the role of oxytocin — a hormone that also influences human social bonding — in the social structure of a thumb-sized mammal that sports a pair of walrus-like tusks, the African naked mole rat.

McCloskey says that when mole rats (which are neither moles nor rats) moved underground millions of years ago, “They changed all the rules about what we think about mammals.” Because they were burrowing into cozy 85-degree-Fahrenheit soil in what is now Kenya, they could dispense with most of a temperature-regulating system that aboveground mammals need, like fur (which is why they’re called naked).

More interesting, they have a bee-like social structure with a queen, who alone breeds for the colony, and workers who perform different functions. But which animals do what and why has confounded naturalists — until McCloskey teamed up with the University’s supercomputing center.

He places a tiny radio frequency transmitter (like the E-ZPass that speeds cars through toll barriers) in each animal to track the millions of movements that occur daily in the six colonies in his lab. The University’s supercomputers process the information. McCloskey developed this system with Michael Kress, executive director of the CUNY High Performance Computing Center and the college’s vice president for information technology and economic development.

In any given week, McCloskey says, “We’re tracking about 100 animals, each little movement they make between their interconnected cages, whether they’re carrying food, or nest-building material or digging a tunnel. We get a profile of each animal and what makes it special. We watch how they interact as we give them challenges, such as seeing who will help build the nest for the queen, or finding a new food source or carrying the pups. We track animals for months or years.”

One discovery is that certain animals are “superhelpers,” while others are, well, slackers. “We’ve found that consistently the same animals are the superstars who help out.” His team tries “to figure out where in the brain the impulse to help comes from” and precisely how and where oxytocin acts in the brain. As for the slackers, “I believe they have some utility and maybe we haven’t figured it out yet.”

McCloskey’s team includes three doctoral students, five master’s students, six undergraduates and two high school students who are drawn from the fields of psychology, computer science, biology and mathematics.

McCloskey’s research may open a window into human behavior, since oxytocin is known to play a role in social bonding; as a medication, it also starts uterine contractions during labor. “Ultimately, we’d like to understand what makes the mole rats social and what creates differences. Then we can ask: Does this give us a better understanding of autism or schizophrenia, which involve problems with processing social cues?”

How did McCloskey get started with African naked mole rats? In 2006 his sister gave him a fact-a-day calendar, which inaccurately claimed that the mole rat was the only cold-blooded mammal (they’re warm-blooded, but regulate body temperature in a very narrow range). “I was doing epilepsy research, which I still do, and I thought they would be great models for how environment affects the brain.”