Genes may play a role in a person's ability to empathize with others, suggests a US study involving mice.
The Study Findings
Researchers trained highly social mice to identify a sound played in a specific cage as negative by also having squeaks of distress come from a mouse in that cage. But a genetically different strain of mice that were less social were unable to learn the same negative connection.
The study was published in the online journal PLoS ONE.
The results indicate that the ability to identify and act on another's emotions may have a genetic basis, said the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Oregon Health & Science University researchers. They added that understanding empathy in mice might improve knowledge about social interaction problems that occur in many human psychosocial disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia, depression and addiction.
"The core of empathy is being able to have an emotional experience and share that experience with another. We are basically trying to deconstruct empathy into smaller functional units that make it more accessible to biological research," said study coleader Jules Panksepp, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student.
"Deficits in empathy are frequently discussed in the context of psychiatric disorders like autism. We think that by coming up with a simplified model of it in a mouse, we're probably getting closer to modeling symptoms of human disorders," Panksepp explained.
"Mice are capable of a more complex form of empathy than we ever believed possible," said Garet Lahvis, PhD, assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University. "We believe there's a genetic contribution to the ability for empathy that has broad implications for autism research and other psychosocial disorders."
Future studies will examine the genetic differences between the highly social and less-social strains of mice in an attempt to identify specific genes that may play a role in empathy.
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