The Lendület Laboratory of Systems Neuroscience of the ELKH Institute of Experimental Medicine (KOKI), led by Balázs Hangya, has developed a novel device capable of fully automated training of laboratory rodents that help researchers study cognitive functions including learning, memory, attention, planning and decision making, with increased efficiency and reliability. This methodological innovation has recently been published in the Scientific Reports journal of the Springer Nature family.

It is increasingly clear to most policy makers that the prevention and treatment of neurological disorders carries huge potential benefits to the society. However, to realize these benefits, we need to understand the mechanisms of human thinking, for which it is inevitable to perform rodent experiments. In such experiments, experimental mice or rats are trained on learning, attentional and other cognitive tasks while constantly monitoring neuronal functions.

This task is time consuming, difficult to standardize, and direct contact with people is a significant stressor for the animals that may affect the efficiency and outcome of the experiments. This situation has been improved by Balázs Hangya and his group at the ELKH Institute of Experimental Medicine. The team has developed an automated training system in which mice can move from their home compartment to an adjacent “training chamber” where training takes place with automated software control. Mice learn the task much faster than during traditional “manual training”, while their stress hormone levels are the same as those of control mice. The new method can also save many working hours, as mice learn even when the experimenter is absent, for instance attending a conference, or be quarantined due to the epidemic. Since subconscious biases by the experimenter can be ruled out, the behavior of any two mice can readily be compared.

Compared to the few automated training systems available to date, the new device is freely programmable for a full range of cognitive rodent tests and can be combined with automated wireless optogenetics experiments. It is affordable and open source, that is, anyone can freely develop and customize it for their own experimental purposes. Thus, the new equipment significantly supports experiments in understanding cognitive functioning, including learning, memory, attention, planning and decision making.

Balázs Hangya and his research team have been working for many years to develop tools and methods to better understand the normal and abnormal functioning of the brain, which can bring us closer to a more effective treatment of serious diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. We have also reported on their recent study about the development of a new procedure that allows the localization of measurement devices implanted in the mouse brain with high accuracy by using CT and MRI measurements that was published in Nature Communications earlier this year.

Authors and source of the article:

Eszter Birtalan, Anita Bánhidi, Joshua I. Sanders, Diána Balázsfi, Balázs Hangya

Efficient training of mice on the 5‐choice serial reaction time task in an automated rodent training system