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Molecular and neural basis of contagious itch behavior in mice

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Science  10 Mar 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6329, pp. 1072-1076
DOI: 10.1126/science.aak9748

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To scratch or not to scratch

Observing someone else scratching themselves can make you want to do so. This contagious itching has been observed in monkeys and humans, but what about rodents? Yu et al. found that mice do imitate scratching when they observe it in other mice. The authors identified a brain area called the suprachiasmatic nucleus as a key circuit for mediating contagious itch. Gastrin-releasing peptide and its receptor in the suprachiasmatic nucleus were necessary and sufficient to transmit this contagious behavior.

Science, this issue p. 1072

Abstract

Socially contagious itch is ubiquitous in human society, but whether it exists in rodents is unclear. Using a behavioral paradigm that does not entail prior training or reward, we found that mice scratched after observing a conspecific scratching. Molecular mapping showed increased neuronal activity in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus of mice that displayed contagious scratching. Ablation of gastrin-releasing peptide receptor (GRPR) or GRPR neurons in the SCN abolished contagious scratching behavior, which was recapitulated by chemogenetic inhibition of SCN GRP neurons. Activation of SCN GRP/GRPR neurons evoked scratching behavior. These data demonstrate that GRP-GRPR signaling is necessary and sufficient for transmitting contagious itch information in the SCN. The findings may have implications for our understanding of neural circuits that control socially contagious behaviors.

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