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4 Ways Climate Change Can Affect the Brain

By Frank Otto

January 11, 2018

The typical images that “climate change” conjures include disappearing coastlines and melting polar ice. But what about animals’ brains — including our own? Can they be affected by the changing climate?

Sean O’Donnell, PhD, professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, argues that they absolutely can.

In a new paper for The Science of Nature titled “The Neurobiology of Climate Change,” O’Donnell laid out the myriad ways in which rising temperatures, abbreviated seasons and ocean acidification (all connected to climate change) can affect the way animals’ brains develop and react to the world around them.

Here, O’Donnell provided a few of the potential results we could see if more steps aren’t taken to reverse climate change:

1. In some species, elevated temperatures can affect young animals’ growing brains — and they could alter older animals’ brains, too

High temperatures can alter nervous system features, ranging from the biochemical to the system level, including effects on gene expression in neurons (nerve cells), neuron structure, and even brain organization.

On top of that, temperature can even influence the formation of new neurons in adult animal brains.

What exactly that would do to cognition (intelligence, behavior) would depend on the species and what parts of the brain were affected. Most likely, though the outcome would be bad,  there would likely be detrimental alterations of cognition and/or behavior.

2. Higher ocean acidification can hurt fish in many ways

Increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) can result in increased ocean acidification. This can affect some marine animals’ general cognitive performance and sensory abilities they use to forage. It could even affect the way their brain’s cells talk to each other through neurotransmitters.

3. Migration patterns could be scrambled

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexxipus) migrate from Eastern North America to overwinter in Mexico, making return migrations in the spring. These butterflies employ a time-compensated sun compass to navigate. It is directionally calibrated (from southbound to northbound) by exposure to cool temperature during over-wintering.

So, if a warming environment doesn’t allow it to get cold enough to recalibrate their sense of direction from its southbound to northbound setting, then the spring migrations could fly in the wrong direction.

4. Human brains aren’t exempt

Direct experience of climate change and its effects or just being exposed to information about it can be traumatic for us, inducing trauma-responsive cognitive states.

Basically, our brains can become overwhelmed or burned out by climate change. And, ironically, this way of coping might actually reduce our capacity to change our behavior in response to threats posed by climate change.

Those interested in reading more can access O’Donnell’s paper here.