Bramati, G., Stauffer, P., Nigri, M. et al. 2023. Environmental enrichment improves hippocampus-dependent spatial learning in female C57BL/6 mice in novel IntelliCage sweet reward-based behavioral tests. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 17.

The IntelliCage is an automated home-cage system that allows researchers to investigate the spontaneous behavior and learning abilities of group-housed mice. The IntelliCage enables us to increase the standardization and reproducibility of behavioral outcomes by the omission of experimenter–mouse interactions. Although the IntelliCage provides a less stressful environment for animals, standard IntelliCage protocols use controlled water access as the motivational driver for learning. To overcome possible water restrictions in slow learners, we developed a series of novel protocols based on appetitive learning, in which mice had permanent access to plain water but were additionally rewarded with sweetened water upon solving the task. C57BL/6NCrl female mice were used to assess the efficacy of these sweet reward-based protocols in a series of learning tasks. Compared to control mice tested with standard protocols, mice motivated with a sweet reward did equal to or better in operant performance and place learning tasks. Learning of temporal rules was slower than that in controls. When faced with a combined temporal x spatial working memory task, sweet-rewarded mice learned little and chose plain water. In a second set of experiments, the impact of environmental enrichment on appetitive learning was tested. Mice kept under enriched environment (EE) or standard housing (SH) conditions prior to the IntelliCage experiments performed similarly in the sweet-rewarded place learning task. EE mice performed better in the hippocampus-dependent spatial working memory task. The improved performance of EE mice in the hippocampus-dependent spatial working memory task might be explained by the observed larger volume of their mossy fibers. Our results confirm that environmental enrichment increases complex spatial learning abilities and leads to long-lasting morphological changes in the hippocampus. Furthermore, simple standard IntelliCage protocols could easily be adapted to sweet rewards, which improve animal welfare by removing the possibility of water restriction. However, complex behavioral tasks motivated by sweet reward-based learning need further adjustments to reach the same efficacy as standard protocols.

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