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Rodent of the Week: Athletes! You must win at home

July 9, 2010 |  1:00 pm

Rodent_of_the_week There was good reason to be worried when the Lakers lost that second game of the NBA championship playoff series against Boston. The loss was at home. According to new animal research, winning at home appears to be important to the male species' ability to prepare for, and win, future conflicts.

In a study with mice, researchers showed that experiencing a win caused changes in the brains that enhanced the ability to win in the future. Researchers also found that winning at home had a particular effect, causing more activity in male hormone receptors in brain regions thought to influence social aggression.

The researchers paired territorial male mice who had winning experience -- sort of macho male mice that, by the way, are a species of California mice called Peromyscus californicus -- with smaller and sexually inexperienced male mice in various settings, such as home cages and neutral settings. Naturally, the mice fought. The researchers then examined the brains of the mice and compared them to similar mice that were not paired for fights. The mice that won both home and away victories had increased expression of hormone receptors in their brains. But only the brains of mice that won in their home cages showed increased hormone sensitivity in two areas of the brain thought to control motivation and reward. Mice that won at home also won more fights with larger and tougher mice when fighting in neutral locations.

The experience of winning, especially at home, appears to actually change the brains of mice. Perhaps this phenomenon extends to other species. In this somewhat dense conclusion, the authors wrote their results "are therefore provocative because they suggest a mechanism through which environmental context modulates socially induced changes to the functional properties of neural circuits that control behavioral motivation and reinforcement."

The study, released online Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Advanced Cell Technology Inc.