** podcast interview accompanies this post ** Lab mice have it pretty good I suppose. Chow, water and mating ad libitum, fresh bedding, no predators. Back in grad school, I usually handled my little mouse subjects gently so as not to frighten them and always followed the guidelines for humane treatment. At the end of the day, however, I must confess that I didn’t actually care or empathize much with them. For the most part, my attitude was, “Hey, they’re just mice – its not like I have Stuart Little here!” I wonder.
As genetics and psychology are increasingly used to jointly explore the mechanisms of human cognition, more and more papers – particularly in the area of social and emotional systems – will make me question the, “hey, they’re just mice” assumption.
The free and open PLoS ONE paper, “Empathy Is Moderated by Genetic Background in Mice” is one of interest in this regard. The authors have devised an experimental paradigm to ask whether emotional distress (to a brief foot-shock) in one mouse can influence the emotional state of an observer. According to the authors, one of the inbred mouse strains, “acquired a classical conditioning (Pavlovian) association, which engendered a freezing response that was dependent upon the previous experience of distress in nearby conspecifics.”
Such a model – which to me, looks pretty humane, that is, in light of what they have learned about mice and empathy, and especially since human volunteers routinely participate in such mild wrist-shock paradigms – will likely be very useful for studies of specific genes where one can compare the “empathy” scores of inbred strains with and without the genetic modification.