Monitoring mouse social interactions

16 September 2013
Posted by Hannah Critchlow.

Published in the journal e Life, Prof. Alon Chen and colleagues at the Weizmann Institute, Israel, present a new method for analysing how groups of mice interact with each other.

This new system has taken five years to develop and may save hours of disco lightscientists time on consuming data analysis. It works by painting the fur of individual mice with different coloured UV paints, illuminating them with a UV lamp and then recording the movements of the nocturnal mice during the night. A computer system then takes the video'd movements, generates 10, 0000 rows of data per hour of recorded footage, and translates this into predictive behaviours such as grooming, sniffing, feeding together, exploring or simply avoiding the other mice!

By providing 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 the environment affects how mice interact with each other. Their finding? Mice that have been raised in a stimulus-rich environment have less complexity in their social interactions than those growing up in more Spartan conditions. In essence: mice that had grown up in the complex environment were more territorial and worked as pairs rather than as a larger group. The scientists comment that this finding in mice ties in with the  common belief for humans that our modern, stimulation-filled environment encourages individualistic behaviour while simpler surroundings give rise to a more developed community life.

The authors  plan to continue collecting data from this system, asking questions such as "How do mutations in various genes affect social behaviour? What about the behaviour of mice that overproduce such hormones as oxytocin (the love hormone) or testosterone? Do mice with the behaviour patterns of autism or schizophrenia function better in certain environments? How do groups of mice learn in a group?"


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