Anxiolytic treatment impairs helping behavior in rats

Inbal Ben Ami Bartal, Haozhe Shan, Nora M.R. Molasky, Teresa M. Murray, Jasper Z. Williams, Jean Decety, Peggy Mason

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

78 Scopus citations


Despite decades of research with humans, the biological mechanisms that motivate an individual to help others remain poorly understood. In order to investigate the roots of pro-sociality in mammals, we established the helping behavior test, a paradigm in which rats are faced with a conspecific trapped in a restrainer that can only be opened from the outside. Over the course of repeated test sessions, rats exposed to a trapped cagemate learn to open the door to the restrainer, thereby helping the trapped rat to escape (Ben-Ami Bartal et al., 2011). The discovery of this natural behavior provides a unique opportunity to probe the motivation of rodent helping behavior, leading to a deeper understanding of biological influences on human pro-sociality. To determine if an affective response motivates door-opening, rats receiving midazolam, a benzodiazepine anxiolytic, were tested in the helping behavior test. Midazolam-treated rats showed less helping behavior than saline-treated rats or rats receiving no injection. Yet, midazolam-treated rats opened a restrainer containing chocolate, highlighting the socially specific effects of the anxiolytic. To determine if midazolam interferes with helping through a sympatholytic effect, the peripherally restricted beta-adrenergic receptor antagonist nadolol was administered; nadolol did not interfere with helping. The corticosterone response of rats exposed to a trapped cagemate was measured and compared to the rats' subsequent helping behavior. Rats with the greatest corticosterone responses showed the least helping behavior and those with the smallest responses showed the most consistent helping at the shortest latency. These results are discussed in terms of their implications for the interaction between stress and pro-social behavior. Finally, we observed that door-opening appeared to be reinforcing. A novel analytical tool was designed to interrogate the pattern of door-opening for signs that a rat's behavior on one session influenced his behavior on the next session. Results suggest that helping a trapped rat has a greater motivational value than does chocolate. In sum, this series of experiments clearly demonstrates the fundamental role of affect in motivating pro-social behavior in rodents and the need for a helper to resonate with the affect of a victim.

Original languageEnglish
Article number850
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberJUN
StatePublished - Jun 8 2016


  • Altruism
  • Emotional contagion
  • Empathy
  • Helping
  • Midazolam
  • Rodent


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