Recent research suggests that short pulses of enrichment induced behaviour may have beneficial effects on the brain in terms of improved emotional state and reduced inflammation.
The beneficial effects of environmental enrichment on the reduction and prevention of harmful behaviours in captive animals are well known, however research into its effects on neural development and health are in their relative infancy.
Scientists at The University of Edinburgh’s Roslin institute and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) have been jointly researching the benefits of environmental enrichment on pig behaviour and health for a number of years, and recently have discovered potential positive effects on brain function and development in environmentally enriched housed piglets.
In a recently published study (Brown et al 2018. Behavioural Brain Research, 350:6-15) the group demonstrate that piglets housed in enriched pens performed more active behaviours, such as playing, foraging and exploring, than their barren housed counterparts. The peak in these active behaviours overlaps with changes in expression of key genes in the brain involved in plasticity (how neural connections are made and broken), mood and inflammation. Expression of genes associated with microglia, the primary immune and major inflammatory cell type of the central nervous system, was reduced in enriched piglets, suggestive of improved brain health through a reduced inflammatory state.
Enriched piglets also experienced a relative increase in expression of genes whose reduction is linked to mood alterations and depression in humans, suggesting that enriched piglets may be in a more positive emotional state than barren housed piglets. In addition, enriched piglets had higher growth rates than piglets housed in barren pens by an average of 33g per day (between weaning and 9 weeks of age).
In this study standard enrichments were used (straw substrate, greater space allowance and a bag filled with straw as an additional enrichment stimulus), however many novel methods of enrichment are possible, as colleagues at Edinburgh College of Art have demonstrated here
Guest article written by Dr Sarah M Brown, The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh