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Mice brains shrink during winter, impairing some learning and memory

The brains of one species of mouse actually shrink during the winter, causing the mice to have more difficulty with some types of learning, a new study found.

The results showed that, during the short days of winter, white-footed mice had impaired spatial memory ?the mental map that helps them remember important places in their environment.

This is one of the first studies to show seasonal changes in the structure and the functioning of brains of mammals, said Randy Nelson, co-author of the study and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Ohio State University .

The changes in the brain may help the mice conserve energy to survive during the cold winter season when food is scarce and conditions are harsh.

"The brain uses a lot of energy relative to its weight," Nelson said. "Like many mammals, mice need to reduce their energy costs during winter, and the brain is a good place to do that."

And while there are obviously many differences between mice and humans, studies like this may one day help researchers gain insight into seasonal brain dysfunctions in humans such as seasonal affective disorder, Nelson said.

Nelson conducted the study with Leah Pyter, a graduate student in neuroscience at Ohio State , and Brenda Reader, an undergraduate psychology major at Ohio State . The findings were published in the May 4 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

In one set of experiments, the researchers used 20 adult male white-footed mice. Using artificial light, some mice were kept in short days ?such as they would face in winter ?with eight hours of light per day for 13 weeks before the beginning of the study. Other mice were kept in long days, simulating summer, with 16 hours of daylight for 13 weeks.

Their spatial learning and memory were tested using a water maze test in which the mice had to swim to find an escape platform hidden just below the surface of opaque water. They were tested for several days to
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Source:Ohio State University


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