Advertisement
Horizon Discovery
Horizon Discovery

Mice show evidence of empathy

Adults become more sensitive to pain after watching other mice in pain, the first sign of empathy in non-primate mammals

By | June 30, 2006

Mice who watch their peers in pain are more sensitive to it themselves, Canadian researchers report this week in Science -- the first evidence of empathy between adult, non-primate mammals. There is an "increasingly popular" view that this kind of basic, pre-cognitive response to social cues may be present in all mammals, said Frans de Waal at Emory University and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, who did not participate in the study. "This "highly significant [paper]...confirms that empathy is an ancient capacity," he told The Scientist in an Email. The response mice showed to their peers in pain is an example of emotional contagion, according to senior author Jeffrey Mogil. (The best known example found in both humans and chimpanzees is the contagious yawn.) In higher primates, emotional contagion can progress to the more complex behaviors commonly associated with the term empathy, such as when a human identifies with a friend's pain and is driven to help. Mogil and his team at McGill University became interested in looking at empathy in mice after they stumbled onto an interesting pattern in a large data set suggesting that a mouse's sensitivity to a pain test depends on its exposure to others that have been through the test. The pattern suggested that mice "might be talking to each other" about their pain in ways that changed their response to it, he said. In this study, the scientists injected acetic acid into one or both of each pair of same-sex adult mice they were studying, causing them to writhe in pain, and allowed them to observe each other. An injected mouse writhed more if its partner was also writhing, but only if the mouse had previously shared a cage with its partner for more than 14 days. Observing another mouse also reduced a mouse's response to pain. When the researchers injected the paws of familiar mice pairs with varying doses of inflammation-causing formalin, mice whose partners experienced less pain tended to show less pain sensitivity (indicated by how long a mouse licked its paw). The researchers also found that a writhing mouse became more sensitive to the acetic acid while watching its cagemate deal with a different painful stimulus -- heat. These findings suggest that mice experience a general increased sensitivity to pain, and don't simply imitate what they see. To figure out what the mice were using to communicate pain to their similarly distressed peers, the researchers systematically blocked each of their senses, using physical barriers or rendering the animals deaf or unable to smell. They found that mice appeared to depend primarily on visual cues to generate an empathic response -- a surprise, since mice are known to be reliant on smell, along with ultrasonic vocalizations to care for their offspring. "Given that rodents don't use visual senses much...that was our last guess," said Mogil. However, it's "almost impossible" to knock out pheromone circuits, which mice use to identify their acquaintances in the first place, so pheromones may also be a significant mediator of empathy, he said. There's a practical lesson here for mouse researchers, according to Mogil -- mice who observe each other during experiments may be "contaminating" the data. He added that he and his colleagues now routinely put up an opaque barrier between mice being tested simultaneously. Empathy is "an evolutionary mechanism to maintain social cohesion. If you're evolving and you're in a group, you're more sensitive to the pain of other members in a group," explained James Harris at Johns Hopkins University, who did not participate in this study. Greater empathy between individuals who are familiar goes back to the early evolution of maternal care in mammals, according to de Waal. "This may have driven initial evolution of being in tune with the emotions of others, after which all the fancy stuff that we associate with empathy came into play." However, these findings in mice hinge on how one defines empathy, which is still under debate, de Waal noted. "Lots of psychologists think top-down, hence equate empathy with complex cognition... which requires introspection," he said. "In this view, mice shouldn't have empathy." In 2004, British researchers used brain imaging to pinpoint the empathy center in humans. The next step here will be to find the mechanisms behind the phenomenon in mice, according to Mogil and Harris. Researchers "may have avoided looking at altruism [in rodents] because it seemed too ridiculous," Mogil said, but these findings have "opened our eyes [about the] abilities of rodents in terms of social interactions." "If it turns out that the 'empathetic' effect in mice is mediated by the same brain mechanisms as human empathy," Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University, not a co-author, told The Scientist in an Email, "then the evidence would be truly compelling that their model actually reflects evolutionary continuity in a pro-social mechanism among many different mammalian species." Ishani Ganguli iganguli@the-scientist.com Links within this article D.L. Langford, et al, "Social modulation of pain as evidence for empathy in mice," Science, June 30, 2006. www.sciencemag.org E. Russo, "New views on mind-body connection: Studies into placebo effect and empathy suggest how the brain encodes subjective experience," The Scientist, August 2, 2004. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14865/ S.D. Preston and F.B. de Waal, "Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases," Behav Brain Sci, February 2002. PM_ID: 12625087 Frans de Waal http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frans_de_Waal http://www.emory.edu/LIVING_LINKS/OurInnerApe/meet_frans.html Jeffrey Mogil http://paingeneticslab.ca/4105/02_01_jeffrey_mogil.asp James Harris http://faculty.jhsph.edu/?F=James&L=Harris T. Singer et al, "Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain," Science, February 20, 2004 PM_ID: 14976305 Panksepp, J. "Brief social isolation, pain responsivity, and morphine analgesia in young rats," Psychopharmacology, 1980. PM_ID: 6781002 Jaak Panksepp http://www.vetmed.wsu.edu/depts-vcapp/Panksepp-endowed.asp
Advertisement
The Scientist
The Scientist

Comments

June 30, 2006

Studies have shown that mice and rats show a marked stress response to being in the same room as another rat subjected either to decapitation or simulated decapitation (?Mice show evidence of empathy,? June 30). New evidence of empathy in mice suggests that these so-called ?witnessing effects? also reflect awareness of another?s pain and distress. \n\nAs we learn more about the complex mental and emotional lives of mice and rats, it becomes clearer that we need to reassess our own empathy towards these animals, especially when we subject them to painful, stressful, and lethal laboratory procedures.\n\nSincerely,\n\nJonathan Balcombe, Ph.D.\n\nThe writer is author of the book: Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good (Macmillan, May 2006) \n\nResearch Scientist\nPCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)\n5100 Wisconsin Avenue, NW\nSuite 400\nWashington, DC 20016\nTel: 202-686-2210 ext. 331\nFax: 202-686-2216\njbalcombe@pcrm.org\nwww.pcrm.org\n
Avatar of: Dwynwen Kovacs

Dwynwen Kovacs

Posts: 1

July 1, 2006

I am appalled that this evident example of gross cruelty apparently is met without comment in the national media. What can I do to as an ordinary individual to put a stop to this type of so called research?
Avatar of: Tim Dodgshun

Tim Dodgshun

Posts: 1

July 4, 2006

Inflicting pain on mice by injecting them with Acetic Acid for God's sake...observing them writhe in pain and then "systematically blocking each of their senses, using physical barriers or rendering the animals deaf or unable to smell". To study what?\n\nEmpathy. The irony ovewhelms me.\n\nThis sort of behaviour on the part of some scientists makes me ashamed to call myself one. And we wonder why people get fanatical and threaten all sorts of retribution for treating animals this way on the flimsiest of pretexts.
Avatar of: Randy Sandberg

Randy Sandberg

Posts: 1

July 5, 2006

What happens to the mice when you inject them with acetic acid? Oh yeah, they "writhe in pain" as you stated. So, it amazes everyone in the scientific community that a "simple" animal, a mouse, can empathize with another when she sees her cellmate in pain? To me, this just makes since. No creature wants to feel pain. In fact, except for some really messed up human-animals, most sentient beings try very hard to avoid pain at all costs. Thus, this "experiment" is just another reason to degrade/torture animals we feel are "lower" than us in the name of science and the all mighty dollar. My question then, is when these poor souls are writhing in pain, do the perpetrators empathize with them? And if so, why won't they stop this kind of madness and join the 21st century where truly valuable experiments can take place without all the needless suffering using computer modeling and other such things.

July 11, 2006

I would like to make a distinction between sympathy and empathy that was originally raised by Carl Rogers, who did research in the 50?s and 60?s demonstrating that empathy (not sympathy) had a powerful therapeutic effect in psychotherapy, and that has been further developed and promoted by Marshall Rosenberg, a student of Carl Rogers, creator of Nonviolent Communication(sm), a language for providing empathy to oneself and others (see MB Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 2nd ed, Puddledancer Press, 2003), and founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication (www.cnvc.org). During empathy one is simply ?there for? the other individual, when experiencing their own feelings while listening to the other, i.e. during sympathy, the listener pays attention to something about themselves, and is not ?there for? the client. \n\nSo when a mouse has a reaction based on its relation to another mouse or event, this is not empathy, but sympathy. The distinction is critical if we want to model empathy for others in our day-to-day relationships. Consider how you would feel if you sensed that the individual listening to you was getting into their own ?stuff? rather than hearing and reflecting exactly what you were feeling in a moment of need?\n\nThomas P. Caruso, PhD\nDirector, Research Initiatives\nVA-MD Regional College of Veterinary Medicine\nVirginia Tech

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
Advertisement
The Scientist
The Scientist
Life Technologies