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We now know more about how and why the brain decides to help others, thanks to a study in laboratory rats conducted at Duke University and Stanford University.

Rats are typically nocturnal, however the rodents will enter a brightly-lit chamber in order to prevent another rat from receiving an electric shock. This displays empathy, identifying with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

"Using rats for this research allowed us to begin to uncover how the brain makes empathic decisions on a level we never could have accomplished with human research alone.  This new knowledge arose from the time resolution of the brain activity we can record in rats, and the flexibility we have in where we record the brain activity from," Jana Schaich Borg, assistant research professor in the Social Science Research Institute and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University, explained to ALN.

Using a series of molecular tests, the research team was able to pinpoint the specific regions of the brain that were active during these altruistic decisions.

The research, published in Brain and Behavior, revealed that decisions involving altruism and empathy require multiple areas of the brain to collaborate. These areas are located deep within the brain.

The role of each region isn't fixed, but changes depending on communication from the areas surrounding it.

"We were very excited to learn that rats use many of the same brain regions as humans do to make empathic decisions," Schaich Borg said. "This observation makes us optimistic that some of the mechanisms we learn about in rats may indeed help us understand how humans make empathic decisions. If we can learn what causes rats to avoid others’ pain, we are hoping we can take advantage of those mechanisms to motivate human psychopaths (and other violent individuals) to avoid hurting other people."

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