Science Snapshot: How Brains Handle Surprise Parties

When unexpected events occur, norepinephrine signals mouse brains to pay attention to key details.

Lisa Winter
Lisa Winter

Lisa Winter became social media editor for The Scientist in 2017. In addition to her duties on social media platforms, she also pens obituaries for the website. She graduated from Arizona State University, where she studied genetics, cell, and developmental biology.

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Jun 3, 2022
GFP highlighting mouse neurons
Green fluorescent protein highlights neurons in the locus coeruleus of a mouse. When mice were startled by researchers, these regions in their brains were activated and released norepinephrine to help the animals focus and learn in order to help initiate advantageous behaviors.
Gabi Drummond

Surprise! Whether unexpectedly confronted with a birthday cake, a snarling dog, or an emergency alert, brains sometimes have precious little time to take in the surroundings and assess the best possible responses. A paper published Wednesday in Nature finds that, in mice, startling stimuli cause the locus coeruleus to release norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline), aiding in the brain’s ability to focus and learn in the moment. Norepinephrine has long been known for its role in the fight or flight response, and this study shows that its contributions to neuromodulation are more widespread throughout the brain than previously appreciated.