In the study, a highly social strain of mice learned to associate a sound played in a specific cage with something negative simply by hearing a mouse in that cage respond with squeaks of distress. A genetically different mouse strain with fewer social tendencies did not learn any connection between the cues and the other mouse’s distress, showing that the ability to identify and act on another’s emotions may have a genetic basis.
Like humans, mice can automatically sense and respond to others’ positive and negative emotions, such as excitement, fear or anger. Understanding empathy in mice may lead to important discoveries about the social interaction deficits seen in many human psychosocial disorders, including autism, schizophrenia, depression and addiction, the researchers say. For example, nonverbal social cues are frequently used to identify early signs of autism in very young children.
“The core of empathy is being able to have an emotional experience and share that experience with another,” says UW-Madison graduate student Jules Panksepp, who led the work along with undergraduate QiLiang Chen. “We are basically trying to deconstruct empathy into smaller functional units that make it more accessible to biological research.”
Animal models of complex social behaviors such as empathy should bring the field closer to understanding what causes social interaction deficits and how they may be treated.