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Rodents change their vocalisations depending on their mood and who they're speaking to © Jelger Herder/Minden Pictures/FLPA

Artificial intelligence used to decode rodent chitchat

Published: 12th February, 2019 at 00:00
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Rodents change their vocalisations depending on their mood and who they're speaking to.

Despite the popular saying, mice are rarely quiet – they are highly social animals that are constantly communicating with one another via complex vocalisations. But their squeaks can be difficult to pick up as they frequently exceed the limits of human hearing and are so quiet that they can be difficult to separate from background noise.


Now, a team at the University of Washington that’s investigating the effects of addictive drugs such as alcohol or opioids has developed a piece of software to listen in on the chitchat of rats and mice. Dubbed DeepSqueak, the program transforms audio signals into sonograms, visual representations of the sounds, that can be analysed using AI techniques, similar to those that enable driverless cars ‘see’ their environment. In this context, however, DeepSqueak is allowing researchers to separate the rodents’ calls from background noise.

Meet Tilda: the orangutan that's learnt to mimic human speech © Getty Images

“The animals have a rich repertoire of calls, around 20 kinds,” said Dr Kevin Coffey, a postdoctoral fellow in the University’s Neumaier lab. Coffey and his colleagues found that male rodents made happy sounds when they were anticipating a reward, such as sugar, or were playing with their male peers. But, when they sensed a female rodent nearby, their vocalisations became more complex, as if they were singing a courtship song. This effect became even more dramatic when they could smell but not see the female, suggesting that they have distinct songs for different stages of courtship.

Thanks to its low cost and convenience, it is hoped that the technique can eventually be used in the investigation of the effects of addictive drugs by monitoring the psychological states of rodents in various stages of withdrawal.

“If scientists can understand better how drugs change brain activity to cause pleasure or unpleasant feelings, we could devise better treatments for addiction,” said laboratory director Prof John Neumaier.


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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.


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