Move over, mice: sheep have the superior brains for neuroscience research

Sheep brains more closely resemble human brains than do mouse brains

A very cute white sheep staring at the camera with other sheep in the background

Sam Carter via Unsplash

Animals are crucial for neuroscience research. Many important discoveries have been made by studying the brains and cells of different animals. For example, we learned how the brain encodes information from the eye through experiments on cats, and we learned how information is relayed by neurons from the squid giant axon. Nowadays the majority of such research is done on mice and rats. These rodents are easy to train and don’t take up a lot of space, making them perfect for neuroscience research. 

However, rodents also have a big disadvantage. Although they are mammals, their brains do not look much like human brains. As a consequence, not all research that is done on rodents is translatable, meaning that findings from rodents do not necessarily apply to humans. This is especially a problem for research on diseases and their treatments: treatments that work in mice, may not work in humans. Many alternative animals have been proposed over the years to address this problem, but each has their own challenges.

In a recent preprint, researchers proposed a new alternative to rodents for neuroscience research: sheep. Sheep have brains that look similar to human brains. In addition, sheep are smarter than you might think. The scientists were able to teach them a behavioral task (the sheep had to choose between two different stimuli in order to receive a food pellet) and for the first time recorded the activity from their brains while the animals were performing it. They showed that the brain showed the same patterns of activity as rodents and humans, both during the task and while the animals were moving around. 

Although this study was the first to perform recordings from a sheep’s brain while it was actively walking around, it follows earlier studies where sheep were already used for the study of various diseases, such as Huntington’s disease. Together this makes sheep a promising alternative to rodents for studying treatments for diseases that affect the brain. Hopefully, studying these woolly animals will lead to many new discoveries in neuroscience.