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The empathy gene
A genetic mutation that makes mice more empathetic has been uncovered.
The ability to understand and share other people’s emotions is a complex social phenomenon, making the genetic origins of empathy difficult to study in humans.
Researchers from the Institute for Basic Science in Korea have studied how 18 different strains of lab mice responded to seeing a fellow mouse receive a mild electric shock. To varying degrees, all mice froze in fear, as though they had received the shock themselves. But one mouse displayed extreme empathy.
When the team sequenced the mice’s genomes, they spotted a mutation in neurexin 3, a nervous system protein, in the most empathic mouse. Introducing this mutation to mice with normal empathy made them more responsive in the observational fear test.
Pinpointing the genes that control empathy could improve our understanding of, and potentially reveal treatment for, a lack of empathy associated with autism, psychopathy and schizophrenia.
- Neuron 98, 588–601 (2018). doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.03.041