Environmental influences play significant role on experiments

February 26, 2003

It is natural to suppose that conducting the same tests, with the same strain of mice and the same protocols on identical equipment but in different labs will ensure similar results. A University of Alberta researcher and his team have found that assumption not to be true--fuelling the nature vs. nurture debate and shedding some light on the importance of environmental factors in experiments.

Dr. Douglas Wahlsten, from the Department of Psychology, is part of a research team that use mice who share the same genetic make-up to study the relationship among an animal's genetics, environment, and behaviour.

In a recent study to determine which kinds of tests done in different laboratories--in Alberta and Oregon--give the same results--Wahlsten and the research team first taught the mice how to use a particular apparatus and then tested motor co-ordination under the influence of alcohol.

They found that the effects of alcohol produced the same results but where the mice differed was in the psychological part of the experiment, when the mice had to learn how to use the equipment. The possible environmental differences that could cause these effects, said Wahlsten, range from the odour in the air, the business of the lab or how the experimenter conducts the test.

Wahlsten said if something as simple as an unpleasant smell can have a strong effect on a mouse's behaviour, the complex environment in which a person grows up must have an enormous effect on his or her apparent intelligence. What may appear to be seemingly small factors that don't seem to matter in behaviour obviously do, said Wahlsten. His research appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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University of Alberta

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