What are the biological roots of psychosis? Studying mice offers a window into understanding human hallucinations

Credit: J. Kuhl
Credit: J. Kuhl

Psychosis occurs when a person loses touch with reality. During a psychotic episode people may become delusional — acquire false beliefs — or confidently believe that they are seeing or hearing things that actually are not occurring.

[Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine] developed a behavioral model to study and quantify hallucination-like perception in mice. They developed a computer game that could be completed by both people and mice. 

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The researchers trained people and mice to complete a task that effectively induced them to hear imaginary sounds. To do this, they played a particular sound, and subjects indicated that they’d heard the sound by clicking a button (people) or poking their noses into a port (mice). 

[T]he authors demonstrated a brain circuit link between excessive striatal dopamine and hallucination-like experience in the mice.

And while the researchers observed that elevations in dopamine levels preceded hallucination-like events — and that artificially boosting dopamine levels induced more hallucination-like events — these behavioral effects could be blocked by administering the antipsychotic drug haloperidol, which blocks dopamine.

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According to the authors, the novel behavioral approach opens the door for mice to be used as a promising translational model of common psychotic symptoms and, perhaps, therapeutic approaches based on selective modulation of dopamine function.

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