Prairie mice take care of each other. (Photo: Emory University)
Read aloud It is considered part of the so-called humanity: We give comfort to afflicted friends. But apparently even prairie mice behave similarly empathic, researchers have now found out. Here, the famous cuddly hormone oxytocin plays an important role, the experiments showed. The sensitive rodents may now become model animals for the study of mental disorders that affect empathic behavior, such as autism.

"I know what you're going through ... It's going to be all right ... I'm with you ..." When we give affectionate words and gestures to a suffering fellow human being, we speak of comforting donations. This behavior, in turn, is based on the so-called empathy: the ability and willingness to recognize what is going on in another. The research of recent years has shown more and more clearly that empathy and comforting behavior are not alone human. They are also part of the sophisticated social behavior of elephants, dolphins, dogs and apes. Particularly strong parallels to our behavior can be found in chimpanzees: they hug or kiss stressed-out gutters to relieve their suffering.

Surprising consolation

In the animal, which has now also proven to be a comfort donor, but it is a supposedly simple nature: the prairie mouse (Microtus ochrogaster). The cute rodents have become famous in the context of research into the hormone oxytocin, which also plays a role in the social behavior of humans. It provides for the prairie mice for the intensive partner bond that characterizes this species of rodent: males and females remain loyal for a lifetime and collectively raise their young.

The researchers now discovered the rodent empathy through special experiments: they separated prairie vole moths and subjected one of the two partners to mild electric shocks. Then they put the still disturbed mouse back to his partner in the cage. This animal began to lick and treat its maltreated friend especially intensively, the observations showed. This behavior, which the researchers call consolation, was only addressed by prairie mice to partners, family members, and familiar animals. Strangers, on the other hand, are not comforted. It is therefore not a pure reflex behavior that trigger stressed mice, the researchers explain.

Mastermind: the cuddle hormone oxytocin

Further research has also shown that the Anterior Cingulate Cortex is specifically activated in the animals' brains when they are dealing with a stressed reference animal. It is already known that this area of ​​the brain also starts when we are confronted with the suffering of a fellow human being. It has also been shown in this context that oxytocin plays a role in the level of human compassion. To find out if this is also the case with the comforting behavior of the prairie mice, the researchers artificially blocked the action of oxytocin in the anterior cingulate cortex in some of their experimental animals. Then they repeated the experiments. It turned out that without the effect of the cuddly hormone, the mice no longer comforted their long-suffering fellows, but they did clean themselves. Ad

According to the researchers, the results reveal exciting parallels between human neuronal principles and rodents. "Many complex human behaviors are rooted in brain processes that we share with many other living things, " says co-author Larry Young of Emory University in Atlanta. "We now have the opportunity to study basic neural mechanisms in a laboratory rodent in empathic reactions that can be linked to humans, " says Young. According to the researchers, the prairie mice could thus advance the study of mental illnesses in which the sensibility to other people's emotions is disturbed, such as autism spectrum disorders or schizophrenia.

Original work of the researchers:

  • Science, doi: 10.1126 / science.aac4785
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