Empathetic Mice May Open Door to Decoding Autism

02/11/09  Portland, Ore.

OHSU researcher's discovery gives scientists new tools for probing the causes - and possible treatments - for perplexing diseases such as autism

Untitled from Jim Newman on Vimeo.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Certain strains of mice are genetically programmed to be empathetic, a scientist at Oregon Health & Science University has learned, a discovery that could aid in the development of treatments for autism, depression and other disorders. The research is published in the current online edition of the journal the Public Library of Science.

A research team led by Garet Lahvis, Ph.D., assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine, recently proved that a natural strain of mice known as B6 is capable of empathy toward other mice because of distinct genetic differences. These mice were able to learn from others when an environmental cue, a tone, could predict another’s distress. The Lahvis team also found that the heart rates of B6 mice changed similar to heart rates in children when they feel empathy. This discovery may help scientists isolate the genes that contribute to autism and other disorders.


“We are particularly interested in the genetic basis for empathy, a capability that may be impaired in certain forms of autism,” Lahvis said. “If this helps us locate the genes that influence empathy in mice, we also may be able to identify the genes that contribute to autism in humans. This ultimately could influence the development of drugs to treat autism, schizophrenia and mood disorders.”

Autism alone affects approximately 1.8 million people in the United States. Autistic children can have impairments in the ability to be empathetic, failing to detect distress in others.

Earlier research shows the B6 strain of mice is among the more gregarious strains of mice because of genetic influences. That prompted Lahvis and his team to study the way B6 mice react when they sense that another strain of mice is distressed or fearful. The results clearly demonstrate that the B6 mice are capable of “feeling into” – or detecting -- the emotional distress of fellow mice, which is a core aspect of empathy.

Lahvis and his team are now trying to isolate the particular genes that give the B6 mice this capability. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

About OHSU

Oregon Health & Science University is the state’s only health and research university, and Oregon’s only academic health center. OHSU is Portland's largest employer and the fourth largest in Oregon (excluding government). OHSU's size contributes to its ability to provide many services and community support activities not found anywhere else in the state. It serves patients from every corner of the state, and is a conduit for learning for more than 3,400 students and trainees. OHSU is the source of more than 200 community outreach programs that bring health and education services to every county in the state.