Science 3 min read

Cowardly Mice Become Warriors in Chinese Laboratory

Hong Kong, China | December 14, 2015 | Chinese Zodiac Bronze Rat Statue at Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple | 2p2play |

Hong Kong, China | December 14, 2015 | Chinese Zodiac Bronze Rat Statue at Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple | 2p2play |

By stimulating a specific neural circuit in the brain, researchers have turned cowardly mice into aggressive, socially dominant little warriors.

Mice, like humans, live in groups. As with any organization, there’s a hierarchy that entails rules for social behavior among group members.

Hierarchy is the basis of the group’s functioning. Like the relationship between drone and worker bees, each mouse within the group has its place and adopts a certain social behavior accordingly.

Scientists discover the neural circuit responsible for social behavior in mice.Click To Tweet

For mice and other animals, including humans, there are some perks that come with the “dominant” status: the dominant member has better survival chances, eats more food first, and has increased odds of mating.

Discovery of the Neural Circuit Responsible for Social Behavior in Mice

A team of researchers at the University of Zhejiang in China have discovered a neural circuit that controls social dominance behavior in mice.

Upon stimulation of this neural switch via a brain implant, timid mice that until then were ranking lower on the social ladder became more daring and showed aggressiveness even towards the previously alpha mice.

Instinctively, mice tend to organize themselves hierarchically and minimize the risk of conflict. UZ scientists decided to stage confrontations between mice of different ranks in social contests.

Male mice were put in a tube facing each other, where the winner would be the one that succeeds in pushing the opponent back in order to go out of the tube.

Researchers then monitored the brain activity of mice to identify the region responsible for dominance behavior, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC).

First, higher-ranking mice won, then after inhibiting the dmPFC with a drug, dominant mice showed signs of retreat.

Of Mice and Men… and the “Winning Effect”

We should note that some media outlets started speaking of the discovery of “alpha male secret.” These outlets portrayed the findings of this experiment next to more ferocious species of wild animals, as a mouse doesn’t really evoke dominance.

However, the word “alpha” or “alpha male” is never mentioned by researchers in their study.

The research speaks of social behavior and motivation, and how they could be stimulated, and not a “neural switch” that turns a socially-impaired person into an “alpha male.”

Not to mention that the whole “alpha theory” thing has been challenged lately with new scientific evidence, but that’s another story.

According to researchers who worked on male mice, the social dominance depends on the rodent’s history in social contests.

This “winning effect” was observed among dominant mice. Each past social victory increases the member chances of winning the next event, and ultimately dominating the group.

It’s far from being firmly established, but according to researchers, who published a paper in the journal Science, a similar mechanism could be true in humans.

However, it must be said that although human and mouse brains share some similarities they’re far apart complexity-wise.

If hooking your brain up to some blue light could turn you into a more dominant person, would you do it?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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