When two male mice meet in a confined space, the rules of engagement are clear: The lower ranking mouse must yield. But when these norms go out the window—say, when researchers rig such an encounter to favor the weakling—it sends the higher ranking male into a depressionlike spiral. That’s the conclusion of a new neuroimaging study that reveals how the mouse brain responds to an unexpected loss of social status, which has been shown to be a major risk factor for depression in humans, particularly men.
The new study’s approach is “clever and powerful,” says Neir Eshel, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Stanford University who wasn’t involved in the work. But he cautions more work is needed to extend the results to our own species.
Groups of mice live in hierarchies, both in the lab and the wild. In the lab, though, the highest ranking males form particularly despotic regimes. One or more dominant “alpha mice” will have privileged access to food and females. They can pee wherever they please, rather than in the designated corner reserved for commoners.
Hailan Hu, a neuroscientist at the Zhejiang University School of Medicine, wanted to know what would happen in the brains of these mousy muckety-mucks when their pecking order was upended. She and colleagues set up a battle of wills, designed to avoid any actual fighting or bloodshed. Ten times a day, over 4 days, the researchers put a dominant mouse nose-to-nose with a subordinate in a clear, narrow tube. Then they blocked the lower ranked rodent’s exit, leaving it no choice but to advance on its superior.
At first, the dominant mice resisted the upstarts and held their ground. But by the fourth day, they were retreating voluntarily from their opponents after only a few seconds. In doing so, the mouse kings also fell in social status and lost their high-ranking perks, including VIP access to a warm nest in the corner.
As the researchers threw the rodents’ social order into upheaval, the once-dominant mice began to exhibit symptoms of mouse depression. Their cravings for sugar water dwindled. In a widely used test of rodent “despair,” in which scientists drop mice in a tank of water to measure how long they fight to stay afloat, they gave up paddling sooner. [Continue reading…]