Your commute to work may seem like a mundane thing, but it is a great example of the complicated tasks our brains must carry out on a daily basis: navigation, memory, decision-making, sensory processing, and so on. Researchers often use animal models, such as mice, to study the neural processes underlying these behaviors. However, many of the tasks used to study learning in mice are not “natural”—they are not behaviors that a mouse might do in the course of its life.
Caltech researchers have now conducted a study in which they measured how mice navigate a complicated labyrinth, suggesting a new framework with which to study complex animal behaviors and learning. The mice rapidly learned how to navigate this unfamiliar environment about 1,000 times faster than mice generally learn simple yet unnatural tasks. The study has implications for how we think about the brain and the body’s role in intelligence. Interestingly, Caltech graduate students performed similarly to mice in navigating a simulated version of the same maze.
The research is a collaboration between the laboratories of Markus Meister, Anne P. and Benjamin F. Biaggini Professor of Biological Sciences, and Pietro Perona, Allen E. Puckett Professor of Electrical Engineering, both TCCI®-affiliated faculty members at Caltech. A paper describing the study appeared online in the journal eLife on July 21, 2021.