Optimisation of cognitive performance in rodent operant (touchscreen) testing: Evaluation and effects of reinforcer strength

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Learning and Behavior





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Operant testing is a widely used and highly effective method of studying cognition in rodents. Performance on such tasks is sensitive to reinforcer strength. It is therefore advantageous to select effective reinforcers to minimize training times and maximize experimental throughput. To quantitatively investigate the control of behavior by different reinforcers, performance of mice was tested with either strawberry milkshake or a known powerful reinforcer, super saccharin (1.5% or 2% (w/v) saccharin/1.5% (w/v) glucose/water mixture). Mice were tested on fixed (FR)- and progressive-ratio (PR) schedules in the touchscreen-operant testing system. Under an FR schedule, both the rate of responding and number of trials completed were higher in animals responding for strawberry milkshake versus super saccharin. Under a PR schedule, mice were willing to emit similar numbers of responses for strawberry milkshake and super saccharin; however, analysis of the rate of responding revealed a significantly higher rate of responding by animals reinforced with milkshake versus super saccharin. To determine the impact of reinforcer strength on cognitive performance, strawberry milkshake and super saccharin-reinforced animals were compared on a touchscreen visual discrimination task. Animals reinforced by strawberry milkshake were significantly faster to acquire the discrimination than animals reinforced by super saccharin. Taken together, these results suggest that strawberry milkshake is superior to super saccharin for operant behavioral testing and further confirms that the application of response rate analysis to multiple ratio tasks is a highly sensitive method for the detection of behavioral differences relevant to learning and motivation.