Scratching is catching in mice

Brain structures vital to mouse contagious itching identified

an itchy mouse

MOUSE SEE, MOUSE ITCH  Like people, mice experience sudden itches after seeing other mice scratch — a boon for studying the neuroscience of contagious behaviors.

Diana Bautista/UC Berkeley

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 about the same frequency but rarely scratched immediately afterward.

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mouse scratch and itch illustration
SCRATCH FILMS Mice that saw a video of another mouse scratching (left) were more likely to have a burst of scratching themselves (right). Yao-Qing Yu et al/Science 2017

Videos of scratching mice produced the same result. More audience itching and scratching followed a film of a mouse with itchy skin than one of a mouse poking about on other rodent business.

Next, researchers looked at how contagious itching plays out in the mouse nervous system. Brains of mice recently struck by contagious urges to scratch showed heightened activity in several spots, including, surprisingly, a pair of nerve cell clusters called the suprachiasmatic nuclei, or SCN. People have these clusters, too, deep in the brain roughly behind the eyes.

Other tests linked the contagious itching with GRP, previously identified as transmitting itch information elsewhere in the mouse nervous system. Mice didn’t succumb to contagious itching if they had no working genes for producing GRP or the molecule that detects it. Yet these mice still scratched when researchers irritated their skin. Also, in normal mice, a dose of GRP injected to the SCN brain regions brought on scratching without the sight of an itchy neighbor, but a dose of plain saline solution to same spots failed to set off much pawing.

It’s fine work, says dermatologist Gil Yosipovitch, who studies itching at the University of Miami. But he wonders how the mouse discovery might apply to people. So far, brain imagery in his own work has not turned up evidence for an SCN role in human contagious itching, he says.

SCN is better known as a circadian timekeeper, responding to cues in light. It’s unclear how the nerve cell clusters might orchestrate behavior based on seeing a scratching mouse, “a very specific and rich visual stimulus,” says psychologist and neuroscientist Henning Holle of the University of Hull in England. Other research suggests different brain regions are involved in contagious itching in people.

Tracking down the mechanisms behind the phenomenon is more than an intriguing science puzzle, Yosipovitch says. People troubled with strong, persistent itching are often unusually susceptible to contagious scratching, and new ideas for easing their misery would be welcome.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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