Suprachiasmatic nucleus

Scratching is catching in mice

an itchy mouse
Like people, mice experience sudden itches after seeing other mice scratch — a boon for studying the neuroscience of contagious behaviors.

MOUSE SEE, MOUSE ITCH

Catch sight of someone scratching and out of nowhere comes an itch, too. Now, it turns out mice suffer the same strange phenomenon.

Tests with mice that watched itchy neighbors, or even just videos of scratching mice, provide the first clear evidence of contagious scratching spreading mouse-to-mouse, says neuroscientist Zhou-Feng Chen of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The quirk opens new possibilities for exploring the neuroscience behind the spread of contagious behaviors.

For the ghostly itch, experiments trace scratching to a peptide nicknamed GRP and areas of the mouse brain better known for keeping the beat of circadian rhythms, Chen and colleagues found. They report the results in the March 10 Science.

In discovering this, “there were lots of surprises,” Chen says. One was that mice, nocturnal animals that mostly sniff and whisker-brush their way through the dark, would be sensitive to the sight of another mouse scratching. Yet Chen had his own irresistible itch to test the “crazy idea,” he says.

Researchers housed mice that didn’t scratch any more than normal within sight of mice that flicked and thumped their paws frequently at itchy skin. Videos recorded instances of normal mice looking at an itch-prone mouse mid-scratch and, shortly after, scratching themselves. In comparison, mice with not-very-itchy neighbors looked at those neighbors at…