AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 26, Number 1, 2017

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Brain Hardwired to Respond to Others' Itching

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Researchers discover why mice scratch in response to other mice scratching 

Some behaviors — yawning and scratching, for example — are socially contagious, meaning if one person does it, others are likely to follow suit. Now, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found that socially contagious itching is hardwired in the brain. Studying mice, the scientists have identified what occurs in the brain when a mouse feels itchy after seeing another mouse scratch. The discovery may help scientists understand the neural circuits that control socially contagious behaviors. “Itching is highly contagious,” said principal investigator Zhou-Feng Chen, PhD, director of the Washington University Center for the Study of Itch. “Sometimes even mentioning itching will make someone scratch. Many people thought it was all in the mind, but our experiments show it is a hardwired behavior and is not a form of empathy.”

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