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Mind

Mice That Fight for Their Rights

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticMay 7, 2010 7:10 AM

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Israeli biologists Feder et al report on Selective breeding for dominant and submissive behavior in Sabra mice.

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Mice are social animals and like many species, they show dominance hierarchies. When they first meet, they'll often fight each other. The winner gets to be Mr (or Mrs) Big, and they enjoy first pick of the food, mating opportunities, etc - for as long as they can remain dominant.

But what determines which mice become top dog... ? Feder et al show that it's partially under genetic control. They took a normal population of laboratory mice, paired them up, and made them battle for supremacy in a simple set-up in which only one mouse can get access to a central food supply:

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At first, only about 30% of pairs developed clear dominance/submission relationships, but the ones that did were selectively bred: dominant males mated with dominant females, and submissive males with submissive females. The offspring were put through the same process, and it was repeated.

The results were dramatic: After 4 generations of successive selection, 80% of the pairs showed clear dominance and submission behaviour. And with each generation of breeding, the dominance relationships appeared faster, and stronger: at first the winners only got slightly more access to the food, but by the 4th generation, they almost completely monopolized it. As expected the mice bred to be dominant were overwhelmingly more likely to end up on top. The differences were not due to general differences in activity levels or anxiety.

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But the naturally timid mice could be made to fight for their rights by treating them with antidepressants - after a month of imipramine, they were taking crap from no-one.

Feder et al say that previous studies have also shown anti-submissive effects of antidepressants, while drugs used to treat mania reduce dominance. Anyone who's experienced a mood disorder will probably be able to relate to this: depressed people tend to feel like they belong at the bottom of the pecking order of life, while mania is classically associated with believing you're the greatest person in history.

So dominance and submission could provide a useful way of testing the effects of drugs on mood. If so, it would be useful, because current animal models of depression and antidepressants etc. mostly rely on putting animals in a glass of water and seeing how long they take to stop struggling...

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Feder, Y., Nesher, E., Ogran, A., Kreinin, A., Malatynska, E., Yadid, G., & Pinhasov, A. (2010). Selective breeding for dominant and submissive behavior in Sabra mice Journal of Affective Disorders DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2010.03.018

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