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Challenges and advanced concepts for the assessment of learning and memory function in mice

Lang, Benjamin; Kahnau, Pia; Hohlbaum, Katharina; Mieske, Paul; Andresen, Niek P.; Boon, Marcus N.; Thöne-Reineke, Christa; Lewejohann, Lars; Diederich, Kai

The mechanisms underlying the formation and retrieval of memories are still an active area of research and discussion. Manifold models have been proposed and refined over the years, with most assuming a dichotomy between memory processes involving non-conscious and conscious mechanisms. Despite our incomplete understanding of the underlying mechanisms, tests of memory and learning count among the most performed behavioral experiments. Here, we will discuss available protocols for testing learning and memory using the example of the most prevalent animal species in research, the laboratory mouse. A wide range of protocols has been developed in mice to test, e.g., object recognition, spatial learning, procedural memory, sequential problem solving, operant- and fear conditioning, and social recognition. Those assays are carried out with individual subjects in apparatuses such as arenas and mazes, which allow for a high degree of standardization across laboratories and straightforward data interpretation but are not without caveats and limitations. In animal research, there is growing concern about the translatability of study results and animal welfare, leading to novel approaches beyond established protocols. Here, we present some of the more recent developments and more advanced concepts in learning and memory testing, such as multi-step sequential lockboxes, assays involving groups of animals, as well as home cage-based assays supported by automated tracking solutions; and weight their potential and limitations against those of established paradigms. Shifting the focus of learning tests from the classical experimental chamber to settings which are more natural for rodents comes with a new set of challenges for behavioral researchers, but also offers the opportunity to understand memory formation and retrieval in a more conclusive way than has been attainable with conventional test protocols. We predict and embrace an increase in studies relying on methods involving a higher degree of automatization, more naturalistic- and home cage-based experimental setting as well as more integrated learning tasks in the future. We are confident these trends are suited to alleviate the burden on animal subjects and improve study designs in memory research.
Published in: Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10.3389/fnbeh.2023.1230082, Frontiers