OHSU

Garet Lahvis, Ph.D.

12/30/2009 - A research team led by Garet Lahvis, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience, recently showed that a strain of mice known as B6 is capable of empathy towards other distressed mice.

Garet Lahvis PhD

A research team led by Garet Lahvis, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience, recently showed that a strain of mice known as B6 is capable of empathy towards other distressed mice. Another mouse strain, with a different genetic background, lacks the capability to learn from the distress of other mice.

Empathy, as originally defined, refers to an emotional experience that is shared among individuals. The B6 mice were able to learn from others when an environmental cue, a tone, could predict another's distress. Through a separate set of experiments, the Lahvis laboratory discovered that the B6 mice can learn from the distress of other mice simply by hearing their vocalizations.  

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. Although there are many knockout mouse strains that are relevant to autism, there is an urgent need for better tests of autism in mice to understand how genetic mutations and environmental chemicals contribute to autism.  The inability to detect distress in others is a feature of the autism diagnosis, and researchers can now study knockout mice for this empathic ability.

"We are particularly interested in the genetic basis for empathy, a capability that may be impaired in certain forms of autism," Dr. 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."

Earlier research shows the B6 strain is among the more gregarious strains of mice. Several mouse strains, including B6, prefer environments that have been associated with companionship versus environments that have been associated with social isolation. These discoveries prompted Dr. 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 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. Dr. Lahvis and his team are now trying to isolate the particular genes that give the B6 mice this capability.

The research is published in the online edition of the journal the Public Library of Science.

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