Lights, camera, action

A machine learning tool analyzing video footage from lab experiments can detect behavioral patterns in mice.
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Behavior is one of the ultimate and most complex outputs of the body’s central nervous system, which controls movement, emotion and mood. It is also influenced by a person’s genetics. Scientists studying the link between behavior and genetics often conduct experiments using animals, whose actions can be more easily characterized than humans. However, this involves recording hours of video footage, typically of mice or flies. Researchers must then add labels to this footage, identifying certain behaviors before further analysis.

This task of annotating video clips – similar to image captioning – is very time-consuming for investigators. But it could be automated by applying machine learning algorithms, trained with sufficient data. Some computer programs are already in use to detect patterns of behavior, however, there are some limitations. These programs could detect animal behavior (of flies and mice) in trimmed video clips, but not raw footage, and could not always accommodate different lighting conditions or experimental setups. Here, Geuther et al. set out to improve on these previous efforts to automate video annotation.

To do so, they used over 1,250 video clips annotated by experienced researchers to develop a general-purpose neural network for detecting mouse behaviors. After sufficient training, the computer model could detect mouse grooming behaviors in raw, untrimmed video clips just as well as human observers could. It also worked with mice of different coat colors, body shapes and sizes in open field animal tests.

Using the new computer model, Geuther et al. also studied the genetics underpinning behavior – far more thoroughly than previously possible – to explain why mice display different grooming behaviors. The algorithm analyzed 2,250 hours of video featuring over 60 kinds of mice and thousands of other animals. It found that mice bred in the laboratory groom less than mice recently collected from the wild do. Further analyses also identified genes linked to grooming traits in mice and found related genes in humans associated with behavioral disorders.

Automating video annotation using machine learning models could alleviate the costs of running lengthy behavioral experiments and enhance the reproducibility of study results. The latter is vital for translating behavioral research findings in mice to humans. This study has also provided insights into the amount of human-annotated training data needed to develop high-performing computer models, along with new understandings of how genetics shapes behavior.