Empathy is moderated by genetic background in mice

QiLiang Chen, Jules B. Panksepp, Garet Lahvis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

130 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Empathy, as originally defined, refers to an emotional experience that is shared among individuals. When discomfort or alarm is detected in another, a variety of behavioral responses can follow, including greater levels of nurturing, consolation or increased vigilance towards a threat. Moreover, changes in systemic physiology often accompany the recognition of distressed states in others. Employing a mouse model of cue-conditioned fear, we asked whether exposure to conspecific distress influences how a mouse subsequently responds to environmental cues that predict this distress. We found that mice are responsive to environmental cues that predict social distress, that their heart rate changes when distress vocalizations are emitted from conspecifics, and that genetic background substantially influences the magnitude of these responses. Specifically, during a series of pre-exposure sessions, repeated experiences of object mice that were exposed to a tone-shock (CS-UCS) contingency resulted in heart rate deceleration in subjects from the gregarious C57BL/6J (B6) strain, but not in subjects from the less social BALB/cJ (BALB) strain. Following the pre-exposure sessions, subjects were individually presented with the CS-only for 5 consecutive trials followed by 5 consecutive pairings of the CS with the UCS. Pre-exposure to object distress increased the freezing responses of B6 mice, but not BALB mice, on both the CS-only and the CS-UCS trials. These physiological and behavioral responses of B6 mice to social distress parallel features of human empathy. Our paradigm thus has construct and face validity with contemporary views of empathy, and provides unequivocal evidence for a genetic contribution to the expression of empathic behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere4387
JournalPLoS One
Volume4
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 11 2009

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distress
genetic background
mice
Physiology
Deceleration
Freezing
Cues
heart rate
Heart Rate
fearfulness
vocalization
physiological response
Genetic Background
Reproducibility of Results
freezing
physiology
Fear
animal models
Shock

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Medicine(all)

Cite this

Empathy is moderated by genetic background in mice. / Chen, QiLiang; Panksepp, Jules B.; Lahvis, Garet.

In: PLoS One, Vol. 4, No. 2, e4387, 11.02.2009.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Chen, QiLiang ; Panksepp, Jules B. ; Lahvis, Garet. / Empathy is moderated by genetic background in mice. In: PLoS One. 2009 ; Vol. 4, No. 2.
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