Barker, T. H., Bobrovskaya, L., Howarth, G. S. et al. 2017. Female rats display fewer optimistic responses in a judgment bias test in the absence of a physiological stress response. Physiology & Behavior 173, 124-131.

Metabolic cages are a type of housing used in biomedical research. Metabolic cage housing has been demonstrated to elicit behavioural and physiological changes in rodents housed within them. The nature of this effect has been characterized as anxiogenic. However, few studies have evaluated positive affect in response to metabolic cage housing and the interaction between this, sex and traditional physiological measures of stress. Cognitive biasing, as measured through a judgment bias paradigm has proven a reliable measure of animal affective state, particularly through its ability to measure positive affect. The current study investigated differences in cognitive biasing between male and female rats when transferred from open-top, grouped housing to a metabolic cage. Rats (Rattus norvegicus) (n = 60) were trained in a judgment bias paradigm previously validated for use in the rat model. Upon exposure to an intermediate, ambiguous probe rats responded with either an optimistic or pessimistic decision. The animals were also subjected to the sucrose preference test to identify the presence of anhedonia. Faecal corticosterone and changes in adrenal tyrosine hydroxylase were also measured to establish whether a stress-like state was experienced. There was a significant interaction between sex and metabolic cage housing on the number of optimistic decisions made F (1, 56) = 7.461, p = 0.008. Female rats that remained in control housing responded with a reduced number of days featuring an optimistic decision compared to males in control housing (p = 0.036). However, both males and females responded with significantly fewer optimistic decisions in the metabolic cage compared to control (p < 0.001). There was a significant negative correlation between treatment and sucrose consumption (rpb = − 0.654, n = 195, p < 0.001). There was also a significant sex effect for faecal corticosterone concentrations F (1, 30) = 6.305, p = 0.018) with female rats (4.050 ± 1.285), displaying greater corticosterone concentrations than males (2.291 ± 0.495). No differences between treatment were observed for either corticosterone or tyrosine hydroxylase levels. This data demonstrates that movement into a metabolic cage resulted in rats displaying significantly greater pessimistic cognitive biases as determined through the judgment bias test. Interestingly, male rats that remained in control housing demonstrated cognitive biases that were not equivalent to female rats. Furthermore, despite a behavioural change being evident, a physiological change in corticosterone or tyrosine hydroxylase levels was not observed.

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