Social interactions in mice

07 October 2013

Interview with

Alon Chen, Weizmann Institute, Israel

Chris Smith spoke to Alon Chen from Israel's Weizmann Institute has developed a computer system to log automatically how the animals interact with each other.  Commenting on the work, Cambridge neuroscientist, Hannah Critchlow...Mouse socialisation monitor system

Hannah -   This new system has taken 5 years to develop and may save hours of scientists time on consuming data analysis.  Inspired by disco lights, it works by painting the fur of individual mice with different coloured UV paints, illuminating them with the UV lamp and then recording the movements of the nocturnal mice by night.  A computer system then takes the video to movements and generates tens of thousands of rows of data per hour of recorded footage and translates these into predictive behaviours such as grooming, sniffing, feeding together, exploring or simply avoiding each other . By providing it a system for analysing complex social interactions between large groups of mice, this could pave the way to a greater understanding of disorders associated with altered social interaction, such as autism.  Researchers can tweak the genes or environment of mice and then relatively quickly see how it affects their social behaviour.  The scientists have firstly applied this technique to find out how enriched environment affects how mice interact with each other.  They found that adolescent mice that have grown up in a stimulant rich environment full of games and toys were much more territorial.  So, they didn't share their food as much.  When they did interact, they worked in pairs rather than as a larger group.  Mice growing up in more Spartan conditions were much more community-minded.  So, the scientists suggests that this finding in mice ties in with the common belief for humans that our modern stimulation filled environment encourages individualistic behaviour whilst simplest surroundings give rise to a more developed community life.  I spoke to one of the authors of the study about the implications of this result, Professor Alon Chen...

Alon -   So, we have in our case, a very specific study in which we just provided the mice during development, during - in a way - adolescence, more stimuli.  In this case, it became in a way less social because each one have much more resources in a way that develop its own territory.  And therefore, it probably need less the surrounding compared to a basic group.  Again, you can think about human societies and which have much more reach type of resources versus the other one whether they are less or more individuals.  So, it's easy to see equivalent system in humans.

Chris -   Alon Chen and before him, Hannah Critchlow.  Alon told Hannah that since publishing this work, he's received requests to share the system from researchers all over the world. Under certain circumstances including during development, large numbers cells kill themselves and it's clear that when one cell commits suicide, it can persuade other cells to follow suit, but how?

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