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A Less-Mighty Mouse Mind

March 16, 2003

Well, they've finally done it. Scientists at world-renowned Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions have invented a forgetful mouse. Now if only the humans could remember why they did that. What these well-educated people did was manipulate a gene to prevent a certain molecular event from occurring in a mouse's brain cells required for storing spatial memory. As everyone watched, the tiny rodent, whose pals quickly learned and remembered precisely how to exit a pool of water, seemed befuddled.

Talk about abuse. Little guy spends a life getting good at mazes in a laboratory with bright lights, just hoping for a few crumbs of (non-French) cheese, maybe a little positive reinforcement. Large creatures in white coats fool his brain so he stands, lost and alone, in a puddle of water right next to a dry platform crowded with long-tailed cousins with functioning memories. The pestilential humiliation of it all.

This resembles a pilot for reality TV. Prize-seeking participants lose their memories and minds before rollicking audiences with genetically altered senses of humor. There is science behind this laboratory tomfoolery. If we can better understand fundamental aspects of learning and memory formation in the brain of a mouse, then perhaps someday we can understand human memory malfunctions, or maybe even teenage thinking and other mental distortions.

Of course, some applications for absent-minded rodents come to genetically distorted minds. Gene-altered mice might be lured from hiding to chat with cats, who have not forgotten. Orkin could develop a humane rodent bait prompting mice to go outside and then forget where they live.

Another possibility is that this whole brain study is really a mouse trap. These little creatures are actually studying humans to see what prompts them to push the Feed button, turn off the lab radio and go away to write a scientific paper or something. At this very moment, while humans think we're unlocking the complexities of a mouse brain, some erudite rodents on the second floor could be peer-reviewing a paper by their ground-floor understudies, "Inter-Spatial Motivational Studies of Reward Stimulation Strategies Among Homo Sapiens."

Although the mice's research would no doubt be couched in familiarly unfamiliar scientific terms and buried among bewildering charts and graphs, the main thrust would be the surprising outcome that merely by standing in a puddle of water and looking lost, a lone mouse can create great excitement among nearby humans, causing them to chatter actively, then scurry away and extinguish those fluorescent lights, finally.

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