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Research into rat emotions could help develop human drugs

A Washington State University researcher says new findings about the emotions of rats could lead to treatments for mental illness in humans. Jaak Panksepp writes in the latest issue of the journal, Science.

He was reacting to a new study showing that rats demonstrate empathy and altruism toward a fellow rat who was stuck in a trap.

Panksepp says these are important insights into the brains of mammals. And he says that could help develop more effective drugs for human conditions such as depression.

"Practically all the medicines that we have in psychiatry came to us through chance, serendipity," Panksepp says. "By taking animal emotions seriously, you can develop new medicines."

Panksepp is a professor of veterinary and comparative anatomy at WSU. In the rat experiments, researchers from the University of Chicago took two cage mates, who knew each other, and trapped one of them in a narrow Plexiglas tube. The free rat outside of this tube seemed to immediately "get" the problem and would work to liberate its pal.

NPR contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.