Smartest Mouse in the World? – Amazing mouse agility tests show how intelligent rodents are.

13Jun12

Despite having cared for laboratory mice for years, I’m wowed by the complexity of this task! The trainer’s site: http://mouse-agility.com/ describes the animals living conditions and training method.

The trainer keeps the mice housed in groups of 3-4 females, in 3-dimensional cages such as a remodeled cupboard, or:

a pyramid of different-sized tables, the several floors interestingly arranged and connected by ropes or ladders – this will keep them fit in all respects. Another advantage of this husbandry is the perfect airing, the good chance to watch your pets and the direct contact to them for the lack of cage bars or glass… To supply their need for digging, I use to place a few litter-filled boxes onto the tables, as well as some bigger tubs beneath them, used as their “basement”.

Starting at 4 weeks, the mice are trained with “clicker training,” an operant conditioning method developed by students of B.F. Skinner. In clicker training, positive reinforcement of behavior with food, is accompanied with a stereotyped auditory cue such as a click. Repeated pairing turns the click into a conditioned reinforcer, that can more inform the animal what behavior they are being rewarded with greater temporal precision,  allowing faster and more complicated training. Using the process psychologists call shaping, mice are trained to do progressively longer and harder tasks.

Mice can be difficult to train with this method because they are naturally cautious and anxious creatures and can be frightened by the noise of the clicker or presence of a trainer. They are also trained using a random reinforcement paradigm, where rewards are not always given at the end of a trial and rewards vary between types of food and caressing.

One of the problems with using mice in experiments (and a large reason why rats are used, despite the sophistication of genetic manipulation in mice), is that they are hard to train to do complex tasks. I don’t know to what extent clicker training and shaping is used by experimenters, but I doubt it is widespread. I would guess that it’s use can extend beyond simple operant conditioning and be used to inform the mice of the relavent cues required for the task. Perhaps using clicker training or by collaborating with expert animal trainers outside of scientific settings we could finally come up with tests of general intelligence, task-shifting,  etc., that could then be manipulated genetically in mice.

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4 Responses to “Smartest Mouse in the World? – Amazing mouse agility tests show how intelligent rodents are.”

  1. 1 Mike

    “I don’t know to what extent clicker training and shaping is used by experimenters, but I doubt it is widespread.”

    I suppose it depends on what you mean by “widespread”, but these methods are used in most behavioral studies. Often the paper won’t make mention of classical or operant conditioning, as it’s a part of the pre-training and not a focus of the actual study, but most will reference “autoshaping”. This is basically the same process as clicker training, but it’s fully automated, with a mechanical lever going in and out on a set schedule, making a ‘clunking’ sound when it becomes available, and the subject ends up shaping themselves by getting closer and closer to the leave until they accidentally press it and learn how to operate it.

    These methods are already used to train, and/or assess, complex behaviors and tasks, like looking at how we make choices, how self-control works, attention, altruism, language, signal detection, intelligence etc etc. The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior is a good place to start if you were interested in reading studies that utilise these methods.

    I’m not aware of any differences in difficulties of training mice versus rats, and I was under the impression that the main reason rats were preferred was simply because they were more practical (e.g. easier to pick up and move around, easier to create equipment for them as mice require smaller, more intricate, and more sensitive parts, etc etc). I’m not sure if there is an official rationale for why rats are preferred in behavioral studies though.

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    • Hmmm. It’s good to know. I wasn’t aware of the use of “autoshaping,” that’s really interesting. It’s a bit outside my field, so maybe I shouldn’t have speculated the way I did in my post.
      From what I’d heard informally, the main reason to use rats instead of mice for neuroscience research were bigger brains (and therefore more tissues for biochemistry, more neurons for culturing, easier to stick tetrodes and cannulas into), to work on models that had already been established in rats, and because they are easier to train to do complex tasks. Maybe I misinterpreted that last point, and it is as you said, just that they are easier to handle and create equipment for, but I thought the general consensus was that rats were smarter than mice, with their bigger brains but similar connectivity.

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  2. 3 Karl

    I have a field Mouse hear that has shown without a doubt that it has a good perception of the situation its in. It has a damaged leg that is healing and it is very quick to show me this when it knows I am trying to look at it. It did this first as soon as it was captured as if to as for help and plead for life. Even though it is wild it will at regular times of about 3 days come to show me its progress with healing but hides as normal for all other times if I don’t actively try to look for it. As I said, when I do it is happy to turn to me and present its leg first stretched out full to the front then a slow attempt to weight bare followed by a stretch to the side then rear. It is a clear a conscious understanding in this rodents mind of what I would be looking at it for, ie: on some level it has a perception of my possible point of view etc. They are known for looking out for each other so they must has that social part of the imagination turn on. This one thing really does elaborate to many many thoughts going though this mouse’s mind. I have all my life seen more communication from everything than most people see but this is a good example of how wrong we have our ideas of the world as seen though another creatures eyes.

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  1. 1 leonmuli.com

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