Caltech experiment proves mice learn faster than we thought

In many experiments, mice are used for various tasks. They are particularly well-suited to experiments investigating animal behavior and learning. Mice are often used as animal models for understanding the neural processes underlining complicated tasks the brain carries out, such as navigation, memory, decision-making, sensory processing, and more.

One of the more interesting aspects of using mice in experiments is that the processes that force them to learn when navigating a maze are unnatural and represent tasks the mice might never encounter in the wild. Recently researchers at Caltech conducted a study that involved using mice to navigate a complicated maze. The team found that mice could learn to navigate the labyrinth they were placed in very quickly at a rate of about 1000 times faster than mice typically learn tasks that aren't natural for the species.

Project researchers believe the study has implications for measuring the role of the brain and body in intelligence. An interesting aspect of this study is that it compared graduate students at Caltech to the mice by having the students navigate the virtually projected conversion of the maze the mice went through, finding the students and mice learned similarly. For the study, researchers developed a complicated maze that had 63 decision junctions and 64 possible endpoints.

Hidden inside the maze was a water bottle that dispensed a drop of water for the mouse to find. Scientists placed the mouse inside the maze and allowed it to explore the maze overnight. A video camera was used to track the explorations of the mouse during the night to qualify its movements and exploratory behavior. Researchers reviewed the tape after the mouse spent seven hours inside the maze.

Half of the mice placed in the maze were thirsty and presumably motivated by that to find water. The other half of the mice weren't thirsty. The mice seeking water don't know water is inside the maze but would work methodically to search the maze. Once the mouse discovered the water port required an average of 10 tries to figure out the best route to the port from its home cage, with that ideal route requiring six correct decisions.

Of the 19 mice used in the study, researchers found most followed similar rules regarding exploration. All of the mice had a strong preference to keep moving forward at junctions rather than turning around. The team also discovered mice tended to alternate taking left and right turns while exploring. The team is unsure if the preference for alternating left and right is hardwired into the mice or results from experiences of the individual mice.