October 18, 2011

Mouse Bullying?

Scientists have discovered that when mice are bullied, their brain chemistry shifts.

Adriana: Do you think that being bullied in school could affect the rest of your life? Well, Dr. Yoav Litvin of Rockefeller University decided to look into just that. He tested out the long-term effects of bullying on a group of male mice.

Dr. Litvin: We took one mouse and we put it together with another mouse. We let them fight and then we separated them, but housing them in the same cage. They still could not touch each other, but they could smell, hear and see each other.

Adriana: Dr. Litvin had each small mouse fight with a different larger mouse for ten mintues each day for ten days. Then he began videotaping the mice to see their reactions. Let’s take a look at that video. Check out what happens when a bullied mouse gets a visitor.

It takes the mouse over a minute to finally approach the new mouse. Litvin watches the mouse and counts how many times he stretches his body forward and how many times he freezes — both signs of fear. In the end, the mouse settles as far away from the new mouse as possible.

Now, let’s see what a non-bullied mouse does in the same situation. When a new mouse enters the cage, he goes right up to him, checks him out and remains by his side.

Why did the mice act so differently? Dr. Litvin decided to look inside their brains to find out. The non-bullied mouse’s brain looked normal, while the bullied mouse’s brain looked like it was under stress.

That was a big discovery. It meant that the bullied mouse was not choosing to act shy and insecure with the new mouse, but his brain was tricking him into thinking that he was in danger. If that is what happens to mice after being bullied, we wanted to ask some teens about what happens to people.

Do you think it could affect someone’s personality, like if they are really outgoing or shy?

Teen: Yeah, like maybe when you’re bullied, you take things more seriously afterwards.

Teen: It’s like a really strong memory that you have, and you relive it. If you meet someone new, you have your guard up. If someone bullies you in school, you try to distance yourself from everyone else.

Adriana: It seems teens and mice have some something in common when it comes to bullying. Litvin wanted to see if special medication could help the bullied mice be less scared in safe situations, so that was the next part of his experiment. And it worked. This was a major breakthrough. If a drug could regulate a mouse’s chemistry so it acted normal, could a drug like this work on people? And if there were a drug, should people take it?

Dr. Litvin: Let’s say you’re bullied when you’re fifteen-years-old and years later you’re still scared about it. Should that person get pills because years later they’re still scared about it? I think no. I still think they should try counseling first and then if they’re talking to people about it and are then still scared about it, then maybe I guess the pill. It might be necessary to take prescribed drugs for your emotions if you try the other things first, but I don’t think medication is the answer for everything.

Adriana: Remember, although we know a lot about how bullying affects a mouse’s brain, we still don’t scientifically know what bullying does to the human brain. But we do know one thing, neither mice nor people seem to enjoy it.


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