Touchscreen-based Visual Discrimination and Reversal Tasks for Mice to Test Cognitive Flexibility   

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Original research article

A brief version of this protocol appeared in:
Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience
Mar 2017


Reversal learning can be used to examine deficits in cognitive flexibility, which have been linked to a number of neuropsychiatric disorders including schizophrenia and addiction. However, methods of examining reversal learning have varied substantially between species. Touchscreen technology has allowed researchers to explore cognitive deficits with a platform that is translatable across rodents, non-human primates and human subjects. Here we describe a method for measuring visual discrimination and reversal learning in mice using automated touchscreen-based operant chambers.

Keywords: Visual discrimination, Reversal, Touchscreen, Cognition, Mice


Cognitive flexibility is the ability to flexibly adjust responses to a previously learned stimulus-reward association, and impairments occur in a range of neuropsychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction. To further study the neural mechanisms implicated in cognitive flexibility, performance of choice and reversal tasks have been used in animal models. There are a variety of methods used to measure cognitive flexibility in rodent models, however many techniques have been difficult to compare between rodent and human studies (Brigman et al., 2010). However, using touchscreens, a similar paradigm can be used to study reversal learning across species (Bussey et al., 2012; Horner et al., 2013). Trained rodents are able to discriminate visual stimuli and then successfully reverse their choice when the contingency changes. However, cognitive performance in both rats and mice has been shown to be highly strain dependent (Graybeal et al., 2014). C57BL/6J mice are a popular strain for behavioural and genetic studies, and have been used as a standard strain against which others are compared (Izquierdo et al., 2006). Meanwhile, BALB/c mice often display poor learning and cognitive performance compared to other strains (Graybeal et al., 2014). Recently, the BALB/c strain was shown to be ‘severely impaired’ in basic training, visual discrimination and reversal learning using touchscreen chambers (Graybeal et al., 2014). Therefore, we have adapted the training protocol to promote responding in an anxious mouse strain (BALB/c), where behavioural (rather than cognitive) traits may impair performance. Our results indicated that this protocol provides comparable levels of performance in the standard C57BL/6 mouse to those previously published and significantly enhanced performance of the anxious and emotionally reactive BALB/c mouse (Turner et al., 2017).

Copyright: © 2017 The Authors; exclusive licensee Bio-protocol LLC.
How to cite: Turner, K. M., Simpson, C. and Burne, T. (2017). Touchscreen-based Visual Discrimination and Reversal Tasks for Mice to Test Cognitive Flexibility. Bio-protocol 7(20): e2583. DOI: 10.21769/BioProtoc.2583.

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