Mice fidget. Those motions have big effects on their brains

Survey any office, and
you’ll see pens tapping, heels bouncing and hair being twiddled. But jittery humans
aren’t alone. Mice also fidget while they work.

What’s more, this seemingly
useless motion has a profound and widespread effect on mice’s brain activity, neuroscientist Anne Churchland of Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratory in New York and colleagues report September 24 in Nature Neuroscience. Scientists don’t
yet know what this brain activity means, but one possibility is that body
motion may actually shape thinking.

Researchers trained some
mice to lick a spout corresponding to an area where a click or a flash of light
originated. To start their task, mice grabbed a handle and waited for the
signal. As the mice focused on their jobs, researchers used several different
methods to eavesdrop on nerve cell behavior in the animals’ brains.

All the while, video cameras
and a sensor embedded on a platform under the mice picked up every move the rodents
made — and there were a lot.

Mice wiggled their noses, flicked
their whiskers and fiddled their hind paws while concentrating on finding the
sound or light, the team found. Those fidgets showed up in nerve cell activity.
When a whisker moved, for instance, nerve cells involved in moving and sensing
sprang into action. Fidgets predicted a big chunk of neural behavior,
mathematical models suggested. Mice’s fidgets even had stronger effects on
brain activity than did the task at hand, the researchers report.

These movements reflect
“unknown priorities of the animal,” the researchers write. One tantalizing
possibility is that body motion — and its big effect on brain activity — may be
part of the thinking process.

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