Of mice and men: mouse a winner by more than a whisker

Are you smarter than a mouse? You will have to read to the end to find out.

Researchers in Melbourne who are trying to discover what causes memory problems in people with autism, schizophrenia, dementia and Alzheimer's disease, have trained mice to play memory games on touch-sensitive screens - a little like iPads for mice.

''We have whisker-sensing technology,'' Emma Burrows, a postdoctoral researcher in neural plasticity at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne said.

The mice, which use the same part of the brain as humans for memory, are first trained to choose between two images, such as a flower and a plane, on a screen.

Eventually they are able to complete more complicated tasks involving more images and all of which have been done by humans in other tests.

''The remarkable thing is you can see them making the decisions. You can see the mice hovering between the two choices, thinking, 'Ooh, which one is it','' Dr Burrows said.

The genes of the mice in the project have been modified to contain schizophrenia and autism mutations, because both these conditions cause memory problems. If the mice make the right decision, they are rewarded with a tiny sip of strawberry milkshake, which motivates them to try again and again.

While people with schizophrenia often receive treatment for more obvious symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusional thoughts, there is no treatment for memory problems.

By using mice, which are genetically similar to humans, the researchers are trying to discover the changes in the brain that cause memory problems.

The team has now sought funding from Pozible, an all-or-nothing crowd-sourcing site, to pay for further research by New Zealand doctoral student Faith Lamont. As a New Zealander, Ms Lamont is not eligible for Australian government funding so she has not been paid for her work on the iPads for mice.

She has also developed a site where humans can test their skills against one of the smarter mice in the test.

And according to Dr Burrows, the mouse is beating everyone. ''It's demoralising. Most people only get about 40 per cent right and are not performing as highly as the mouse,'' she said.

It may be some comfort to know that this mouse is among the smarter ones in the test. While human participants are expected to learn quickly, the mouse was trained over a period of 17 hours on 34 days and was rewarded with 1206 shots of milkshake, about seven microlitres at a time.

Information and test :http://www.pozible.com/project/34836

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