April 7, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 113—Fighting animals, and HSAs

Fighting among social animals is common as they compete for the resources they need to survive and reproduce. While a winner and a loser will inevitably result from these interactions, do these challenges also leave an unseen, lasting mark? A recent study by Indiana University researchers found that competition among free-living female songbirds changed the activity of important energy- and aggression-related genes in the brain. Some of these effects lasted two full days after competition had ended, and several of the changes in gene activity were related to epigenetic marks, which chemically modify DNA so that genes are turned on or off without changing the genetic code -- a mechanism capable of linking past experience with future behavior. IU scientist Kimberly Rosvall says the findings give important insight into how social experiences are encoded in the brain and how they can have long-lasting effects. The study was performed with a population of wild tree swallows that breed in artificial cavities -- nest boxes provided by Rosvall's lab. These songbirds need a cavity to reproduce but, unlike a woodpecker, they cannot excavate one themselves. As part of the study, the researchers experimentally increased competition using a method similar to the childhood game of musical chairs. Once the birds settled at nest boxes in early spring, researchers reduced the number of available boxes while the birds were roosting in trees overnight. When they returned in the morning, the females had to aggressively compete for the remaining boxes. Researchers then reversed the experiment and measured genome-wide changes in socially relevant brain regions. They found that genes related to energy mobilization were expressed more highly in females during competition, but cellular maintenance processes had lower expression days after competition. This hints at a trade-off between meeting the energetic demands of competition at the expense of self-maintenance. Genes in aggression-related pathways were also more highly expressed days after competition had ended and changes were found in pathways related to hormonal signaling, suggesting those genes were poised to respond to future competition. Collaborator Alexandra Bentz says this totally normal competitive event for these birds -- fighting for a territory -- can have lasting and potentially beneficial effects on their brains, 'socially priming' them to better handle competition in the future.

In other news, many experts have praised health savings accounts – commonly known as HSAs – for providing a triple tax break. Money is deposited pretax, can grow tax-free and is not taxed when it is spent, as long the expenses are eligible. During the pandemic, HSAs have become an important way to save for unexpected health care costs. But Greg Geisler, professor at IU’s Kelley School of Business, says for those graduating from college and beginning a new career, health savings accounts also can be the first key to accumulating wealth. Employees beginning their career often wonder how to gain financial freedom as soon as possible, he says. Most young professionals start with investing, paying down debts and getting the maximum employer 401k match. But no one talks about health savings accounts, Geisler says. When it comes to the most tax-efficient financial moves for young people, Geisler recommends putting the maximum into an HSA account and enough into a 401k to obtain the greatest employer match. Geisler says young people typically have lower health care costs and can invest their funds in stocks inside the HSA and watch the size of the account grow tax-free. HSA accounts are not like a flexible spending account, which is ‘use it or lose it.’ With a health savings account, you have it for the rest of your life and you can reimburse yourself immediately or you can wait, Geisler said. Additionally, Geisler recommends all career starters pay off high-interest-rate debts, then contribute to a Roth IRA annually, since the contributions can be used for emergency spending needs tax free. These steps, Geisler says, are not only smart but achievable.