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Empathy Might Be in the Genes

Mouse study suggests DNA affects how able someone is to have compassion for others

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 11 (HealthDay News) -- Genes may play a role in a person's ability to empathize with others, suggests a U.S. study involving mice.

Researchers trained highly social mice to identify a sound played in a specific cage as negative by also having squeaks of distress come from a mouse in that cage. But a genetically different strain of mice that were less social didn't make the same negative connection.

The study was published in the Feb. 11 issue of PLoS One.

The results indicate that the ability to identify and act on another's emotions may have a genetic basis, said the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Oregon Health & Science University researchers. They added that understanding empathy in mice may improve knowledge about social interaction problems that occur in many human psychosocial disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia, depression and addiction.

"The core of empathy is being able to have an emotional experience and share that experience with another. We are basically trying to deconstruct empathy into smaller functional units that make it more accessible to biological research," study co-leader Jules Panksepp, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student, said in an Oregon Health & Science University news release.

"Deficits in empathy are frequently discussed in the context of psychiatric disorders like autism. We think that by coming up with a simplified model of it in a mouse, we're probably getting closer to modeling symptoms of human disorders," Panksepp explained.

"Mice are capable of a more complex form of empathy than we ever believed possible," Garet Lahvis, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University, said in the same news release. "We believe there's a genetic contribution to the ability for empathy that has broad implications for autism research and other psychosocial disorders."

Future studies will examine the genetic differences between the highly social and less-social strains of mice in an attempt to identify specific genes that may play a role in empathy.

More information

The Nemours Foundation offers handouts to teach children about empathy.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Oregon Health & Science University, news release, Feb. 10, 2009

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