PublicationsAudible pain squeaks can mediate emotional contagion across pre-exposed rats with a potential effect of auto-conditioning
Footshock self-experience enhances rodents’ reactions to the distress of others. Here, we tested one potential mechanism supporting this phenomenon, namely that animals auto-condition to their own pain squeaks during shock pre-exposure. In Experiment 1, shock pre-exposure increased freezing and 22 kHz distress vocalizations while animals listened to the audible pain-squeaks of others. In Experiment 2 and 3, to test the auto-conditioning theory, we weakened the noxious pre-exposure stimulus not to trigger pain squeaks, and compared pre-exposure protocols in which we paired it with squeak playback against unpaired control conditions. Although all animals later showed fear responses to squeak playbacks, these were weaker than following typical pre-exposure (Experiment 1) and not stronger following paired than unpaired pre-exposure. Experiment 1 thus demonstrates the relevance of audible pain squeaks in the transmission of distress but Experiment 2 and 3 highlight the difficulty to test auto-conditioning: stimuli weak enough to decouple pain experience from hearing self-emitted squeaks are too weak to trigger the experience-dependent increase in fear transmission that we aimed to study. Although our results do not contradict the auto-conditioning hypothesis, they fail to disentangle it from sensitization effects. Future studies could temporarily deafen animals during pre-exposure to further test this hypothesis.