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Form of “empathy” found in mice

June 29, 2006
Courtesy McGill University
and World Science staff

A study has found that a primitive form of empathy, previously suspected but unproven even among higher primates, exists in mice.

Courtesy U.S. Centers for Disease Control

The study, by psychologist Jeffrey Mogil of McGill University in Montreal and colleagues, found the effect at work only in mice that were familiar to each other from being housed together.

Among these mice, the group found, those who could see one another in pain were more sensitive to pain than those tested alone. The rodents didn’t need to be related for the effect to appear, the scientists said.

The research demonstrates a sort of “emotional contagion” among animals, the researchers added. The results, published in the June 29 issue of the research journal Science, couldn’t easily be explained by stress, imitation or other factors, the authors claimed.

The findings are not only unprecedented in what they tell us about animals, Mogil said: they may ultimately be relevant to understanding pain in humans, by shedding light on how social factors play a role in pain management.

“We know that social interaction plays an important role in chronic pain behavior in humans,” he explained, and rodent studies may help explain why this is so.

Mogil, who conducted the research with graduate student Dale Langford and others, is a repatriated Canadian whom McGill recruited in 2001 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There, he identified sex-specific genetic circuitry governing how males and females respond to pain.

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