These authors contributed equally to this work.
High-throughput phenotyping of avoidance learning in mice discriminates different genotypes and identifies a novel gene†
Article first published online: 2 AUG 2012
© 2012 Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Genes, Brain and Behavior © 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd and International Behavioural and Neural Genetics Society
Genes, Brain and Behavior
Volume 11, Issue 7, pages 772–784, October 2012
How to Cite
Maroteaux, G., Loos, M., van der Sluis, S., Koopmans, B., Aarts, E., van Gassen, K., Geurts, A., The NeuroBSIK Mouse Phenomics Consortium, Largaespada, D. A., Spruijt, B. M., Stiedl, O., Smit, A. B. and Verhage, M. (2012), High-throughput phenotyping of avoidance learning in mice discriminates different genotypes and identifies a novel gene. Genes, Brain and Behavior, 11: 772–784. doi: 10.1111/j.1601-183X.2012.00820.x
M.L., B.M.S., A.B.S., M.V. and The NeuroBSIK consortium designed research; G.M., M.L., and B.K. performed experiments; K.v.G. generated and genotyped transposon mice, S.v.d.S and B.K. generated analytical tools; A.G. and D.A.L. contributed transposon seeder and transposase mice and advice; G.M., M.L., S.v.d.S., B.K. and E.A. performed data analyses; G.M., M.L., S.v.d.S., O.S., A.B.S. and M.V. wrote the article.
- Issue published online: 8 OCT 2012
- Article first published online: 2 AUG 2012
- Accepted manuscript online: 30 JUL 2012 12:00AM EST
- Manuscript Revised: 3 JUL 2012
- Manuscript Accepted: 3 JUL 2012
- Manuscript Revised: 2 JUL 2012
- Manuscript Revised: 8 JUN 2012
- Manuscript Revised: 27 APR 2012
- Manuscript Received: 30 JAN 2012
- Agentschap NL. Grant Number: BSIK03053
- Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research
- European Union Seventh Framework Program. Grant Number: HEALTH-F2-2009-241498, HEALTH-F2-2009-242167
- Avoidance learning;
- behavioral flexibility;
- common inbred;
- high-throughput behavioral screening;
- home cage;
- Top of page
- Materials and methods
- Supporting Information
Recognizing and avoiding aversive situations are central aspects of mammalian cognition. These abilities are essential for health and survival and are expected to have a prominent genetic basis. We modeled these abilities in eight common mouse inbred strains covering ∼75% of the species' natural variation and in gene-trap mice (>2000 mice), using an unsupervised, automated assay with an instrumented home cage (PhenoTyper) containing a shelter with two entrances. Mice visited this shelter for 20–1200 times/24 h and 71% of all mice developed a significant and often strong preference for one entrance. Subsequently, a mild aversive stimulus (shelter illumination) was automatically delivered when mice used their preferred entrance. Different genotypes developed different coping strategies. Firstly, the number of entries via the preferred entrance decreased in DBA/2J, C57BL/6J and 129S1/SvImJ, indicating that these genotypes associated one specific entrance with the aversive stimulus. Secondly, mice started sleeping outside (C57BL/6J, DBA/2J), indicating they associated the shelter, in general, with the aversive stimulus. Some mice showed no evidence for an association between the entrance and the aversive light, but did show markedly shorter shelter residence times in response to illumination, indicating they did perceive illumination as aversive. Finally, using this assay, we screened 43 different mutants, which yielded a novel gene, specc1/cytospinB. This mutant showed profound and specific delay in avoidance learning. Together, these data suggest that different genotypes express distinct learning and/or memory of associations between shelter entrance and aversive stimuli, and that specc1/cytospinB is involved in this aspect of cognition.
Recognizing and coping with aversive situations are essential abilities for health and survival in mammals. Successful avoidance strategies require distinct cognitive abilities: learning and remembering stimuli that predict aversive situations or harm, and also the flexibility to suppress or alter routine- or preferred behaviors. Aberrancies in those behaviors are core symptoms of many affective disorders (Dziegielewski 2010) and are associated with many psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia [(Szöke et al. 2005), for a meta-analysis: (Lesh et al. 2011)] and ADHD [for a meta-analysis: (Willcutt et al. 2005)], and with substance (ab)use (Kreek et al. 2005; Wills et al. 1994). Twin studies indicate that variation in harm avoidance and behavioral flexibility have a prominent genetic basis, with heritability estimates of 39–50%, (Finkel & McGue 1997; Gagne & Saudino 2010; Groot et al. 2004; Polderman et al. 2009; Stins et al. 2004; Yamagata et al. 2005). The long allele of the serotonin transporter gene has been implicated as a causal variant in harm avoidance, but evidence for non-involvement is currently prevailing (Munafò et al. 2009; Schinka 2005; Wray et al. 2009). Genome-wide association studies have not yet produced convincing alternatives (Verweij et al. 2010). Hence, to date we know little about which genetic variation is involved in these avoidance traits.
To unravel the mechanisms that drive avoidance behavior and to identify potential genetic factors that modulate these, mice are a suitable resource. Classical behavioral tests, such as passive avoidance (Baarendse et al. 2008; Crawley et al. 1997; McGaugh 1966), have been used to describe avoidance responses to an electric foot shock. Different studies in avoidance responses suggest that natural genetic variation substantially influences this type of behavior (Crawley et al. 1997). In addition, mice can also establish multiple, distinct associations with an aversive stimulus [as for instance in a fear conditioning (Stiedl et al. 1999)]. Using such paradigms, several features of avoidance learning and behavioral flexibility have been elucidated. However, classical stand-alone tests typically employ rather intense learning stimuli (i.e. electric shock) or require animals to be motivated by food deprivation. Unspecific stress levels are further enhanced by animal handling when placing mice in the test system, thereby potentially impacting on test results (Hurst & West 2010).
One prominent approach to avoid these limitations is to test animals in their home cage environment without human interference. Moreover, we expect that in a home cage environment even subtle stimuli are salient enough to drive avoidance learning. Innovations in automated detection of rodent behavior allow studying various aspects of spontaneous behavior (de Visser et al. 2005, 2006; Goulding et al. 2008; Jhuang et al. 2010; Voikar et al. 2010) and have paved the way for systematic (high-throughput) analysis of mouse behavior, also tapping in on the fast expansion of available genetically modified mice. Such automated, unbiased approaches to natural behaviors can also be applied to study cognitive traits, like learning and memory, but novel methods are required to automate analysis of these traits.
Toward this goal, we characterized the complex behavioral response indicative of avoidance learning in mice using an unsupervised, automated high-throughput system. We adopted an experimental procedure developed by de Heer et al. (2008) in an instrumented home cage, the PhenoTyper, containing a shelter with two entrances. This assay exploits the natural tendency of mice to develop a preference for one of two shelter entrances, and applies automated detection of shelter entrances. Automation can now be used to sanction specifically visits to the preferred entrance by applying a mild aversive stimulus (illumination of the shelter with bright light). This learning paradigm, which is not confounded by human interference and/or highly stressful stimuli, specifically addresses cognitive aspects of avoidance behavior and produces a wealth of information on other aspects of behavior. Using this assay, we screened >2000 mice and obtained evidence for specific associations between the aversive stimulus and the preferred shelter entrance, and more generalized associations between the stimulus and the shelter in general. Finally, as proof of principle for high-throughput gene function analysis, we screened a panel of 43 different mutants, and identified a novel gene, specc1/cytospinB, involved in avoidance learning.
Materials and methods
- Top of page
- Materials and methods
- Supporting Information
Eight inbred strains
129S1/SvImJ, A/J, BALB/C, C3H/HeJ, C57BL/6J, DBA/2J, FVB/N and NOD/LtJ. All male, aged between 7 and 18 weeks old, were obtained from Harlan (Horst, The Netherlands) or bred in house, housed under 12-h dark-light cycle with access to water and food ad libitum. After acclimation to the facility for at least 1 week, each mouse was individually housed in one of the 48 PhenoTyper® cages 6.5 days. All experimental procedures were approved by the national animal research committee and complied with the European Council Directive.
Sleeping Beauty transposon mice
Transposon seeder mice were obtained by crossing transposon concatamer GT3A/tTA mice, with SB10 mice expressing the transposase (Geurts et al. 2006). Both GT3A/tTA and SB10 mice had been back-crossed to C57BL/6 mice (Harlan) for >12 generations before crossing. Seeder mice were mated with C57BL/6J mice to generate mutant offspring. Integration of the transposon was detected by linker-mediated PCR. Two microgram of tail DNA was digested with NlaIII overnight at 37°C, cleaned up using Qiagen's Qiaquick PCR purification kit (Venlo, Netherlands) and eluted in 50 µl water. Linker-oligonucleotide mix was prepared by mixing 50 µl linker+ (25 µm), 50 µl linker− (25 µm), and 1 µl 5 m NaCl, heated in a boiling bath for 5 min and slowly cooled to room temperature. Sequence of the linker oligonucleotides was:
- linker+: 5′-TAATACGACTCACTATAGGGCTCCGCTTAAGGGACCA TG-3′
- linker−: 5′Phos-GTCCCTTAAGCGGAG-3′NH2
Digested genomic DNA (400 ng) and 6 µl linker-oligonucleotide mix were used for overnight ligation with T4 ligation kit (MRC Holland, Amsterdam, The Netherlands). The template was amplified in a 50 µl primary PCR reaction supplemented with primers New long IR/DR(R) (100 mm), linker primer (100 mm), 200 µm dNTPs, 2 mm MgCl2 and 1 unit of platinum Taq polymerase (Invitrogen). The PCR machine was programmed for touchdown PCR at 94°C for 2′, 25 cycles of 94°C for 15″, 60°C for 30″ (−0.5°C per cycle), 72°C for 1′30. The primary reaction was diluted 1:50 and 2 µl used in a nested PCR under the same exact conditions, except supplemented with 0.25 µm of each primer IR/DR(R) KJC1 (0.25 µm) and linker nested primer (0.25 µm). Sequences of the oligonucleotides were:
- New long IR/DR(R): 5′-GTTATGCTAGATGGCCAGATCTAGCTTGTGG AAGG-3′
- linker primer: 5′-GTAATACGACTCACTATAGGGC-3′
- IR/DR(R) KJC1: 5′-CCACTGGGAATGTGATGAAAGAAATAA AAGC-3′
- linker nested primer: 5′-AGGGCTCCGCTTAAGG GAC-3′
Secondary PCR products were separated by electrophoresis and cleaned by Invisorb spin DNA extraction kit (Invitek, Hayward, CA, USA) and eluted in 25 µl water. Three microliter was ligated in pGEM-T easy cloning kit (Promega, Fitchburg, WI, USA), transformed into DH5α Escherichia coli bacteria, plated on LB-AMP-X-gal plates and incubated overnight at 37°C. Colonies were inoculated and cells were grown overnight at 37°C. Plasmid were isolated and sequenced with BigDye Terminator v3.1 Cycle Sequencing Kit (Applied Biosystems, Carlsbad, CA, USA) and T7 and SP6 oligonucleotides. Sequence of the oligonucleotides was:
- T7 primer: 5′-GTAATACGA CTCACTATAGGGC-3′
- SP6 primer: 5′-ATTTAGGTGACACTATAG-3′
New mutants, where the gene trap had landed in an active gene, were bred to lose the transposase and the transposon donor site, which was confirmed by genomic PCR using oligonucleotides Specc1 F and Specc1 R or Specc1 R and IR/DR(R) KJC1, DMSO (10%), BSA (1×), dNTPs (400 µm) and 1 unit Taq DNA polymerase (New England Biolabs), resulting in respectively a wild-type amplified DNA product of 522 bp, and a mutant product of 632 bp. PCR cycle: 95°C for 5′, 35 cycles of 95°C for 30″, 55°C for 30″ 65°C for 1′ and 65°C for 5′. The sequences of the oligonucleotides were:
- Specc1 F: 5′- CTGGGTAGCAGAATGTACGTCC-3′
- Specc1 R: 5′- GCCTAGTAATGCCCTGATCTTC-3′
- IR/DR(R) KJC1: 5′-CCACTGGGAATGTGATGAAAGAAATAAAAGC-3′
Specc1 male mutant mice, bearing a gene trap cassette in the third intron of the Specc1 gene deleting expression of two splice variants of the Specc1 gene, as outlined in Fig. 4a. Mice were analyzed in the PhenoTyper at the age of 8 weeks and compared to their wild-type littermates.
Instrumented home cage
Activity in the home cage was automatically recorded by video-tracking in specially designed cages (PhenoTyper model 3000, Noldus Information Technology, www.noldus.com/phenotyper). Each cage contains a top unit with built-in hardware for video-tracking, that is, an infrared-sensitive video camera. The latter provide constant and even illumination of the cage. An infrared filter placed in front of the camera prevents interference with room illumination. This method allows continuous behavioral recordings in both dark and light periods. EthoVision was used as video tracking and trial control software. For the purpose of the high-throughput screen, Noldus Information Technology developed a special version of the software (EthoVision HTP 18.104.22.168) based on EthoVision XT 4.1 (Noldus et al. 2001). Forty eight PhenoTyper cages were connected in a specially designed computer network. Four cages were connected to a PC running video tracking and trial control software. The 12 data collection PCs were connected to a central PC (running software for experiment design and progress monitoring) and a data storage server (for storage and analysis of track files). The cages (L = 30 × W = 30 × H = 35 cm) were made of transparent Perspex walls with an opaque Perspex floor covered with bedding based on cellulose. A feeding station and a water bottle were attached on to two adjacent walls outside of the cage. A shelter (height: 10 cm, diameter: 9 cm; non-transparent material) was fixed in one of the corners. Two bright white LED, producing no heat, were mounted on two cage walls, shining inward through the Perspex wall into the shelter from two angles to provide the aversive light stimulus. In EthoVision, the shelter was defined as a ‘hidden zone’; the program distinguished the parameters ‘in shelter’ and ‘on shelter’. Video-tracking was performed at a rate of 15 samples/second. The following parameters were used for analysis: frequency of entries in each entrance of the shelter, the distance moved, and the time spent in the shelter, in total for the 6.5 days (for more information on the algorithms used by the program see the Ethovision XT 4.1 manual). During the first 4 days, the mouse could enter freely in the shelter. On day 4, the preferred entrance was defined by the system as the most used entrance. On days 5 and 6, each time the mouse used its preferred entrance, bright light (500 lx) was automatically switched on in the shelter as long as the mouse stayed inside. As soon as it left the shelter through either entrance the light was turned off. The light did not turn on when the mouse entered through the non-preferred entrance. The shelter light flashed once whenever the mouse moved into a 3 cm area around the preferred entrance of the shelter area on days 5 and 6 to signal the aversive learning trial.
Raw track files from the PhenoTyper were processed using AHCODA analysis software (Synaptologics BV, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; www.synaptologics.com). Time bin of the shelter visit detection was selected to be 5 min unless stated otherwise. MatLab© was used to create a database to group all the data needed for the analysis.
Before any analysis was performed, data were examined for outliers (>3 times the SD from the strain mean) (see Table S12 for details). A small number of mice were define as outside sleeper because they were sleeping outside more than 25% of their time outside and less than 50% in their shelter (n = 22; 4 A/J; 3 BALB; 5 C57; 7 FVB and 3 NOD). Mice with no preference on day 4 (exactly 50% for each entrance) were exclude for the analysis. The difference between strains in the total number of entrances across the first 4 days was determined using generalized estimating equations (GEE) (Liang & Zeger 1986). The binomial test was used to determine preference on day 4, testing whether the probability to take a specific entrance was significantly higher than 50% (FDR < 0.014). The differences between the genotypes in the probability to use the preferred entrance on day 4 were tested using tests of equal proportions.
The preference index was determined as follows: [(number of entries through the preferred entrance) – (number of entries through non-preferred entrance)]/(total number of entries). The aversion index was defined as follows: [(time spent in the illuminated shelter after entering through the sanctioned entrance) – (time spent in the dark shelter after entering through the non-sanctioned entrance)]/(total time spent in shelter).
Comparisons between groups were made for multiple variables using a test of equal proportion. For a given level of analysis, statistical analysis was based on estimated FDR (Verhoeven et al. 2005), P-values were corrected by the minimum positive FDR with a threshold set at 5%. Kruskal–Wallis and Mann–Whitney U test were used for non-continuous data, like the onset and variability. GEE were used to model the frequency of the use of the entrance in the shelter, to model the change in preference resulting from the manipulation and the difference between strains in this change. Repeated measures anova was used to discriminate the change of time spent in the shelter using one or the other entrance. All statistical analyses were performed in PASW Statistics© 17.0.2 and R© version 2.11.0.
- Top of page
- Materials and methods
- Supporting Information
To analyze avoidance learning, mice were tracked in instrumented home cages (PhenoTyper) that contained a shelter with two entrances. Mice were left in these cages for 7 days without human interference and normal 12-h dark-light cycle. During the first 4 days, the animals developed a natural preference for one of the two shelter entrances. The PhenoTyper software automatically detected the preferred entrance on day 4 (Fig. 1a). During days 5 and 6, the use of this preferred entrance was sanctioned during each entry by a bright light that illuminated the shelter and remained on until the animal left the shelter again. The use of the other entrance was not sanctioned. On the last half day (dark phase of day 7), the aversive stimulus was no longer applied (probe trial, Fig. 1a). Our test set up is described in Fig. S1.
We first studied basic sheltering behavior and development of a preferred entrance, and subsequently tested response strategies to an aversive stimulus in eight common inbred strains (129S1/SvImJ, n = 53; A/J, n = 33; BALB/C, n = 33; C3H/HeJ, n = 22; C57BL/6J, n = 87; DBA/2J, n = 36; FVB/N, n = 27; NOD/LtJ, n = 29). These strains together cover ~75% of the natural genetic variation in mice (Roberts et al. 2007). Across the entire cohort, the two entrances were equally often preferred (52% vs. 48%; Fig. 1b), ruling out a general entrance bias due to the layout of the arena. Subsequently, we screened collections of gene-trap mice using the Sleeping Beauty transposon/transposase system (Geurts et al. 2006), and null mutant strains, in total 42 strains, typically n = 12 homozygous male mutants (in case of severe mutations: heterozygous) vs. 12 wild-type littermates (see Table S1 for genotypes and group sizes).
Genotypic differences in shelter visit pattern and preference
During the first 4 days without interference, mice developed a characteristic pattern of shelter visits, with frequent entries, often with short durations, during the dark phase, and fewer entries during the light phase (Fig. 2a). Among the inbred lines, substantial differences were observed in the number of visits (GEE, χ2 = 4024, df = 8, P < 0.001; Fig. 2a,b; see also Tables S2 and S3). The number of entries averaged over the total light and dark phases (12 h each, Fig. 2c) confirms the differences between the genotypes in visit frequencies (dark phase: GEE, Genotype x day: χ2 = 224, df = 21, P < 0.001; light phase: GEE, Genotype x day: χ2 = 114, df = 21, P < 0.001), and differences between light and dark phase for each genotype (Table S4, Supporting Information). Differences between genotypes were also similar in light and dark phases (Fig. 2c; similar strain ranking). Differences in shelter visit frequency among the genotypes correlated well with differences in general activity (Fig. 2d, Pearson correlation coefficient: 0.79, P < 0.0001, n = 320; see also Table S5).
After 4 days, 129S1/SvImJ (129S1) mice developed the strongest preference (group average: 83 ± 2% of entries via their preferred entrance), followed by BALB/C (BALB) and DBA/2J (DBA) (76 ± 3% and 73 ± 2%, Fig. 2e). Only 36% of the C3H/HeJ (C3H) mice developed a significant preference (see Table S6), although the group average probability to enter the preferred entrance is rather high (69 ± 3%; Fig. 2e). This is explained by the low number of entries of C3H, and thus, low statistical power (see also Figs S2 and S3). The total time spent outside decreased during the first 3 days in some strains, indicating a habitation effect. The time spent outside the shelter had stabilized by day 4 (Fig. S4).
Genotypic differences in avoidance behavior upon a mild aversive stimulus
Avoidance learning was studied by automatically applying a mild aversive stimulus (shelter illumination with bright light) during days 5 and 6 each time mice entered the shelter using their preferred entrance, but not the other (see Fig. 1). Prior to the analysis of the effect of the aversive stimulus, we discarded two different categories of mice that were not suitable for the experiment. The first category consisted of all mice presenting no shelter preference [exactly 50:50 between the two entries, three mice in total of three different strains; C57BL6/J (C57), DBA and NOD/LtJ (NOD)]. The second category comprised mice that did not visit the non-sanctioned entrance during the first 12 h of day 5 (the beginning of the test phase; Fig. S5 and Table S7). These mice had not experienced that only the preferred entrance was sanctioned and therefore had no incentive to change their preference.
Upon introduction of the aversive stimulus, the number of entries via the preferred entrance decreased for most genotypes (Fig. S3). However, this response is a combination of specific aspects, recognizing and actively avoiding the sanctioned (wrong) entrance, and more general aspects, making fewer entries via either entrance (see Fig. S3) and/or avoiding the shelter altogether (see below). Therefore, we used a more specific measure of the cognitive aspects: the fraction of entries via the preferred (and later sanctioned) entrance over the total number of entries, referred to as the ‘preference index’. This also allows comparisons between light and dark phases (when substantially different absolute numbers of entrances are made, Fig. 2a–c). A decrease of this index indicates that a mouse has established a specific association between its preferred entrance and the aversive stimulus and is a direct consequence of a decision process that occurred before an entry was made. Therefore, we consider changes in the preference index as a specific cognitive response. 129S1, DBA and C57 mice showed the strongest decrease of this index, that is, the strongest cognitive response (Fig. 3a–c/i). The group average for DBA mice went from 0.51 (on day 4) to −0.4 (on day 6) over the 2 days that the preferred entry was sanctioned (Fig. 3a/i). After these 2 days, 91% of DBA and 79% of C57 mice showed significant cognitive responses [false discovery rate (FDR) < 0.01; Fig. 3a,c/iii]. 129S1 also showed a strong cognitive response, but the preference index did not decrease under 0 (Fig. 3b/i). The cognitive response was highly significant for these three genotypes on both days 5 and 6 (as compared to day 4, see Table S8, GEE P < 0.001). The cognitive response of BALB, NOD and A/J mice was slower and only reached significance by day 6 (Fig. 3d,h,f/i; Tables S8 and S9). The other two genotypes (FVB and C3H) showed no significant cognitive response (Fig. 3g,e/i), although several individuals of these strains did (Venn diagrams in Fig. 3g,e/iii). The cognitive response of all genotypes is highly comparable during light and dark phases (Fig. 3/i).
Mice that show weak/no cognitive responses might do so because they do not experience shelter illumination as aversive. To address this possibility, we measured the time a mouse spent in the shelter after using the sanctioned/wrong entrance (i.e. the time spent in the now illuminated shelter). A change in the time spent in the now illuminated shelter is a measure for how aversive the light stimulus is. This might be different for individual mice and is driven by multiple individual factors such as anxiety, visual sensitivity and bright light aversion. To visualize this measure, we calculated the aversion index (see methods). A decrease in this parameter (‘aversion index’) indicates that the mouse experiences shelter illumination as aversive. Indeed, the aversion index was significantly decreased for all genotypes, except for C3H and FVB, two visually impaired strains (Wong & Brown 2006) and for A/J (Fig. 3e,g,f/ii; see Table S10). This indicates that most genotypes did experience illumination as aversive, but that for three strains, on average, shelter illumination is probably not sufficiently aversive to evoke avoidance responses, although several individuals of these strains showed an aversion to the light (Venn diagrams in Fig. 3e,g,f/iii). During the 2 days that the aversive stimulus was applied, mice might also have habituated to illumination, limiting changes in the aversion index and explaining why this index levels off between days 5 and 7 (Fig. 3/ii).
To reveal the full potential of this avoidance test and visualize the complex response of each strain, we plotted these two indexes (12 h bins, dark and light phase) against each other, in one graphic (Fig. S6). This graphic shows the different strategies displayed by the different strain to cope with the aversive stimulus.
In addition to the two principal responses (cognitive and aversive responses), we observed that some mice showed an alternative response, avoiding the shelter altogether and resting (sleeping) outside the shelter. These mice apparently established a general association between the aversive stimulus and the entire shelter, rather than a specific association between the stimulus and one specific entrance, as outlined above. This generalized association was most prominent for DBA mice. On day 6, 60% of these mice showed a significant increase in the time spent resting outside (Fig. 3b/iii). A/J and NOD also showed prominent increases in outside resting (45 and 46%, respectively Fig. 3f,h/iii). For other genotypes, a smaller percentage of individuals started resting outside, but this response was observed for some individuals of all genotypes (Venn diagrams in Fig. 3/iii).
Specc1/cytospinB gene-trap mice show substantially delayed avoidance learning
Finally, we searched for novel genes involved in avoidance learning and tested whether our newly developed automated assay could be used for this. For this, we applied the avoidance learning assay to a collection of gene-trap mice, which were generated using the Sleeping Beauty transposon (Geurts et al. 2006). This approach yields random inactivation of typically single genes, unique for every individual new integrant, without flanking gene complications known to confound behavioral assessment of knockout mice (Wolfer et al. 2002). Out of 43 screened single gene mutants, we identified one integrant that showed a specific defect in avoidance behavior. Integration of the transposon was localized (see experimental procedures) to the third intron of specc1/cytospinB a gene with no functional annotation yet (Fig. 4a). The location of the trap is predicted to prevent expression from two of three transcription initiation sites, including the most widely expressed transcripts (canonical sequence, Fig. 4a). Loss of transcripts was confirmed by qPCR on whole brain mRNA according to the strategy outlined in Fig. 4a. In the brain, the gene was mainly expressed in the hippocampus (Allen brain atlas).
Homozygous specc1/cytospinB mutant mice (n = 11) were viable and showed no morphological abnormalities. The mutants had normal sensory-motor development and responded normally to visual cues. However, they exhibited a remarkable delayed response to the aversive stimulus and changed neither their preference (cognitive response) (see Fig. 4b/i; Tables S8 and S9) nor the time spent in the shelter after entering via the preferred entrance (aversive response) during the 2 days that the aversive stimulus was applied (Fig. 4b/ii). During these 2 days, control littermates (n = 11) showed cognitive- and aversive responses very similar to the responses previously observed for the founder strain (C57, Figs 3c and 4b; GEE and RM anova; see Tables S8 and S9). Only during the last day, day 7, specc1/cytospinB mutant mice showed a cognitive and aversion response which normal mice show 2 days earlier (Fig. 4b).
While avoidance learning was drastically delayed in the specc1/cytospinB mutant mice, other aspects of their behavior were normal. The overall activity pattern (Fig. 4c,d,f), their moving velocity (Fig. 4g), the pattern of entering the shelter, also relative to the day-night cycle (Fig. 4h), the total number of entries on days 1–4, that is, until the introduction of the aversive stimulus (Fig. 4e), as well as the strength of their preference for one of the two entrances (Fig. 4f) were all normal.
- Top of page
- Materials and methods
- Supporting Information
In this study, we investigated aversive learning in mice using a fully automated assay that relies on mouse-triggered sanctioning of shelter entrance with a mild aversive stimulus. Our data show that the complex adaptive behavioral response of mice can efficiently and successfully be detected, analyzed and visualized even in large cohorts of (mutant) mice. Different genotypes and single gene mutants exhibit marked and quantitative differences in distinct aspects of this behavioral response.
The current data show that the natural preference of mice to reside in a dark/sheltered compartment can be exploited, as part of the natural behavioral repertoire (Kas et al. 2008), to generate high-content behavioral information on cognitive traits, behavioral flexibility and anxiety. In addition, the current data also revealed several striking new features of sheltering behavior, such as marked, genotype-dependent differences in visit frequencies, the existence of sharp peaks in shelter visit activity and genotype-dependent timing of these peaks relative to the light/dark cycle. This circadian variation in sheltering behavior may contribute to inconsistencies in anxiety tests among strains when performed at different circadian time (Brunner et al. 2002; Jones & King 2001).
Our assay produced three principal features that could be firmly established for all genotypes except two visually impaired genotypes, FVB and C3H (Wong & Brown 2006), and for transposon gene trap mice (in C57 background): (1) specific association between one shelter entrance and the aversive stimulus, that remained after conditioning was discontinued on day 7, was observed in most individuals of eight inbred strains and gene trap mice, (2) generalized associations, observed in all genotypes defined by the apparent association between the shelter in general and the aversive stimulus, without discriminating between the two entrances and (3) aversion responses (staying shorter in the shelter when it is illuminated), observed in most mice of all genotypes. As 65% of visually normal mouse strains showed significantly reduced shelter residence time after using the sanctioned (now illuminated) preferred entrance, it can be concluded that the mild aversive stimulus can be used successfully for those strains, and genetic resources derived thereof.
The avoidance response patterns observed in this study are a composite response consisting of aversion to the bright light inside the shelter, cognitive aspects (specific recognition of the sanctioned entrance and avoiding it) and behavioral flexibility aspects (suppression of the tendency to display learned behavior and switching to an alternative). Interestingly, some strains with high aversion response to light in the light–dark box test proved to be poor performers in our paradigm (i.e. A/J) and, conversely, low responders were good performers here [i.e. C57 (de Mooij-van Malsen et al. 2009)]. This indicates that the cognitive response is not merely a read-out of differences in aversion to the light that could be the result of factors such as light-induced anxiety and visual capabilities. Similarly, higher anxiety in DBA than in C57 mice is not a predictor of good fear learning (Baarendse et al. 2008; Stiedl et al. 1999). Instead, it is conceivable that the three genotypes whose cognitive response was most pronounced (i.e. 129S1, DBA and C57) have superior learning performance and/or behavioral adjustability, which make them suitable for future drug screening programs identifying cognition modifying compounds. The similar performance of C57 and DBA mice is of particular interest as DBA mice are generally inferior to C57 in aversively motivated tasks, have been reported to be hippocampus impaired, while under appetitive conditions they perform similar to C57 mice in spatial learning [see (Youn et al. 2012)]. This underscores the importance of avoiding unspecific stressors to assess cognitive function in mice for determining its heritable underpinnings.
The change in preference induced by the aversive light stimulus was still observed at day 7, when the aversive stimulus was no longer applied. This implicates an adaptive change in behavior in response to the light stimulus, which contributes face validity to the cognitive aspect of this task. Panels of inbred mouse strains have been characterized in different assays of learning and memory, such as contextual fear conditioning task (Bolivar et al. 2001; Bothe et al. 2004) and spatial navigation in Morris water maze (Lad et al. 2010) and Barnes maze (O'Leary et al. 2010). Different experimental conditions, anxiety and stressors such as water in the Morris water maze, complicate the comparisons between tests. Not surprisingly, strain rankings vary among these tasks, consistent with the idea that no single task reveals the full richness of learning and memory phenotypes in a wide range of genotypes (Wahlsten et al. 2005). Therefore, the present paradigm is an important new addition to existing paradigms, since it uses a mild aversive stimulus, runs without human interference and derives the cognitive response from the ratio of preferred entries excluding confounding effects of general activity.
To our knowledge, no systematic assessment of behavioral adjustability has been performed in the same panel of inbred strain used here for comparison. Generalized responses, that is, avoiding the shelter altogether and sleeping outside, might be a mechanistically distinct response from the specific association. It can be considered as a more direct response to an aversive situation and might be similar to generalized fear responses with reduced flexibility/discrimination. Interestingly, home cage recording revealed difference in activity level for some strain compare to classical behavioral test. For instance FVB, known to be hyperactive in a novel open field compared to other strains (Millstein & Holmes 2007) showed lesser activity in the PhenoTyper. Locomotor activity is known to be influenced by environmental and emotional states. This relation is not linear as shown in different outcomes of corticotropin-releasing factor on activity depending on the environment (hypoactivity during novelty exposure, but hyperactivity in familiar environment (Britton & Indyk 1990)).
Knocking out the major splice variants of the functionally not annotated gene specc1/cytospinB produced a delay in avoidance learning, whereas many general activity parameters, circadian rhythms and sensory-motor abilities were unaffected. This delay can be caused by a specific impairment in learning the association between the entrance and the light stimulus or could be the result of a difference in the perceived aversiveness of the light stimulus. In either case, this example illustrates the sensitivity of this paradigm to pick up avoidance learning phenotypes using subtle aversive learning stimuli in a home cage environment. The encoded protein contains prominent protein-protein interaction domains, a coiled-coil domain and a calponin-homology domain. Its expression level is relatively low in adult brain but is upregulated in several behavioral paradigms and disease models (GeneNetwork 2012; European Bioinformatics Institute 2012). Calponin-homology domains are also found in spectrin, λ-actinin, many microtubule-associated proteins and several rho/ras GTPase-activating and GDP exchange factors, which implies that Specc1/CytospinB might, like these other proteins, be involved in cytoskeleton remodeling. Interestingly, cytoskeleton remodeling small GTPases have a strong link to cognitive abilities in different mammals including humans (reviewed in (van Galen & Ramakers 2005)). Moreover, of the 13 top SNPs reported by Verweij et al. (2010) for harm avoidance in humans, rs971718 on chr 17 (P-value 3.8x10-5, effect size -.23) is located 6 Mb upstream from SPECC1 (Verweij et al. 2010).
Together, the results described in this manuscript show that subtle learning stimuli in a home cage environment provide sufficient salience to drive avoidance learning. Due to the efficiency achieved with automated home cage screening, we anticipate that learning protocols in home cage settings will gain popularity in large scale mouse phenotyping efforts. Such efforts, especially when combined with drug screening or lesion studies, will further validate the avoidance learning paradigm as a novel cognition test in mice.
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We thank Rolinka van der Loo for operating the PhenoTyper systems and Ruud Wijnands for assistance, Joost Hoetjes and Joke Wortel for genotyping and generating transposon mice, Chris van der Meer, Bert Tersteeg, Marieke Boin and Lieselotte Thoolen for mouse breeding and animal care, Jurjen Broeke and Arthur de Jong for help with MatLab programming and Dr. Douglas Armstrong for excellent suggestions. We also thank Noldus Information Technology for supplying software free of charge and hardware at cost price and Ben Loke, Cecilia Herrera, Willem van der Veer and Raymond de Heer for development of hardware, software and test scripts. This work was supported by Agentschap NL (NeuroBSIK Mouse Phenomics Consortium, BSIK03053), the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (Pionier/VICI900-01-001 and ZonMW 903-42-095 to M.V.; VENI-451-08-025 and VIDI-016-065-318 to S.v.d.S), and the European Union Seventh Framework Program under grant agreement no. HEALTH-F2-2009-241498 (EUROSPIN project, to M.V.) and HEALTH-F2-2009-242167 (SynSys project to A.B.S. and M.V.).
The authors declare no conflict of interest. M.L. and B.K. are full time employees of Sylics (Synaptologics BV), a private, VU University spin-off company that offers mouse phenotyping services using AHCODA. A.B.S. and M.V. participate in a holding that owns Sylics shares and have received consulting fees from Sylics.
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|gbb820-sup-0001a-AppendixS1.doc||Word document||24K||Appendix S1: The NeuroBSIK Mouse Phenomics consortium collaborators.|
|gbb820-sup-0001-FigureS1.doc||Word document||62K||Figure S1: Overview of the screening system with 48 cages connected to 12 computers running EthoVision HTP 22.214.171.124 software, controlling hardware in the PhenoTyper and saving track files containing X and Y coordinates and zone visits of mice at 15 frames/second. Track files were error corrected and smoothened using EthoVision HTP 126.96.36.199 software offline, and statistically analyzed and visualized with AHCODA.|
|gbb820-sup-0002-FigureS2.doc||Word document||55K||Figure S2: Total number of entries per day during the six experimental days. C3H, DBA, 129S1, FVB and NOD displayed a stable number of entries along the experiment. C57 mice showed an increase until day 4 and then a decrease in the number of entries. A/J mice showed a decrease until day 3 then an increase until day 5 and finally a small decrease on day 6. BALB mice showed a constant decrease in the number of entries (see Tables S3 and S8 for statistical details).|
|gbb820-sup-0003-FigureS3.doc||Word document||78K||Figure S3: Number of preferred entrances during the 6.5 days of experiment. The vertical dashed lines delineates the test period. Three strains (C57, 129S1 and DBA) showed a decrease in the use of the preferred entrance at the beginning of the test period in the dark phase. BALB, A/J, NOD and FVB mice showed a decrease starting on day 5. C3H did not show any change in preferred entrance use. The differences were smaller in the light phase, during which mice did not seem to change their use of the preferred entrance. Only A/J mice showed an increase in the use of the preferred entrance during the test period in the light phase.|
|gbb820-sup-0004-FigureS4.doc||Word document||52K||Figure S4: Time spent outside the shelter. A repeated measures anova showed a general decrease in the time spent outside during the first 3 days (between days 1 and 2, F1,312 =20.7; P < 0.001, and days 2 and 3 F1,312 =6.56; P = 0.01). This overall effect is mainly due to A/J and FVB that show a significant decrease between days 1 and 2 (P = 0.003 and P < 0.001, respectively).|
|gbb820-sup-0005-FigureS5.doc||Word document||59K||Figure S5: Cumulative plot of the percentage of mice that entered the shelter through the non-sanctioned entrance during the dark phase of day 5. After 6 h of the dark phase of day 5, 100% of C57, FVB and NOD visited the non-sanction entrance at least once. The last DBA mouse visiting this entrance showed this response at 11 h of the dark phase. Not all 129S1, A/J, BALB and C3H mice visited the non-sanctioned entrance after 12 h. Those mice were excluded from the further analysis because they were not aware of the presence of a non-sanctioned entrance and therefore could not learn to change their preference.|
|gbb820-sup-0006-FigureS6.doc||Word document||105K||Figure S6: Indixes Plot. We plotted in one graph the deliberate change in preference to enter through the non-sanctioned entrance (X-axis), and the change in time spent in the shelter after entering through the non-sanctioned entrance (Y-axis). To simplify the visualization, the two parameters plotted here are the inverse of the preferred index and the aversion index. These two parameters are plotted against each other before the introduction of the aversive stimulus (day 4), during the 2 days when the stimulus is operational (days 5–6), and in dark phase of day 7 when the stimulus was no longer applied (12 h bins, dark and light phase). Aversion (upward shift) is expected to develop instantaneously in response to the aversive stimulus, whereas the cognitive response (rightward shift) is expected to develop gradually, reflecting the avoidance learning process. C57 mice showed such a response: during the first 24 h (day 5), the response involved both aversion (upward) and cognitive (rightward) aspects, followed by a stabilization of the aversion behavior, whereas development of the cognitive aspect of the response continued (only a further rightward shift) during the following 24 h (day 6). A similar pattern was observed for DBA mice, until the end of day 5, but the preference change stabilized on day 6 already. 129S1 mice showed most of the cognitive response preceding the aversive response. This can be explained by the fact that during the dark phase of day 5 the response is mainly driven by a decrease of the use of the preferred entrance and that during the light phase almost no changes occur. The main part of the aversive and cognitive responses takes place during day 6. BALB mice display an upward shift only during the dark phase of day 5 (aversive response mainly). The remaining genotypes (C3H, A/J, FVB and NOD) showed no significant aversion response (although individual mice did), nor a cognitive response.|
|gbb820-sup-0007-TableS1.doc||Word document||69K||Table S1: List of the number of mutagenized mice (WT, wild-type; KO, knock-out; HZ, heterozygous) screened in the PhenoTyper.|
|gbb820-sup-0008-TableS2.doc||Word document||29K||Table S2: Maximum number of shelter entries and average number of shelter entries in 15 min for each strain.|
|gbb820-sup-0009-TableS3.doc||Word document||64K||Table S3: Habituation pattern. This table compares the total number of entries on days 1, 2 and 3 to day 4, and 129 and C3H mice showed a stable number of entries along the 4 days. C57 and DBA showed an increase between days 1 and 4, whereas A/J, BALB, FVB and NOD mice displayed a decrease in the number of entries.|
|gbb820-sup-0010-TableS4.doc||Word document||34K||Table S4: GEE model comparing the total number of entries in the dark and light phase for the first 4 days. All the strains showed a highly significant (P < 0.0001) difference between the entries in the shelter during the dark and the light phase.|
|gbb820-sup-0011-TableS5.doc||Word document||30K||Table S5: Correlation between the distance moved and the number of entries. C57, DBA, FVB and NOD mice showed highly significant correlation (P < 0.0001) between the distance moved and the number of entries during the first 4 days; BALB mice displayed a weaker correlation but still significant (P < 0.05), whereas A/J and C3h showed no significant correlation.|
|gbb820-sup-0012-TableS6.doc||Word document||30K||Table S6: Percentage of mice showing a significant preferred entrance on day 4. On day 4, Over 80% of 129S1, A/J, BALB and DBA mice had a significant preference (i.e. significantly higher than 50%) for one of the two entrances. Of C57, FVB, NOD, 65.7, 53.1 and 61.4%, respectively, had a preference on day 4. Only 36% of C3H mice had developed a significant preference on day 4, less than half the population (36%) showed a significant preference on day 4.|
|gbb820-sup-0013-TableS7.doc||Word document||26K||Table S7: Number of mice per strain that failed to use the non-sanctioned entrance 12 h after the beginning of the test phase on day 5.|
|gbb820-sup-0014-TableS8.doc||Word document||55K||Table S8: Results of the generalized estimated equations (GEE) on the proportion of entries through the preferred entrance. Day 4 is used as the reference day. The simple contrast test showed significant (FDR = 0.018) differences between days 4 and 5 for 129, C57, DBA and BALB/C, and a significant difference in the proportion of entries through the preferred entrance between days 4 and 6 for 129, A/J, C57, DBA and BABL/C. The mean difference is positive because we observe an increase in the probability between days 4 and 5 and day 6. SPECC1-WT mice showed a significant increase during both days of testing, whereas SPECC1-KO did not show a significant change.|
|gbb820-sup-0015-TableS9.doc||Word document||70K||Table S9: GEE results for pair-wise comparison of the effect of the sanctioned entrance on the number of entries through the preferred entrance between strains.|
|gbb820-sup-0016-TableS10.doc||Word document||128K||Table S10: Resting time in the shelter after using the sanctioned entrance: Repeated measure anova (using Greenhouse – Geisser correction) revealed a significant main effect of days, F4,1174 = 13.515, P < 0.0001) and a significant interaction between the days and the strains, F29.1,1174 = 1.86, P < 0.004. No effects of the light and dark phase were observed for this aversion index. Importantly, five strains show a significant effect of days on the time spent in the illuminated shelter (after using the sanctioned entrance) either already between days 4 and 5 (129S1, P = 0.032; C57, P < 0.0001), or between days 5 and 6 (129S1, DBA, C3H, with P-values of P < 0.01, P < 0.01, P = 0.034, respectively). A/J, BALB, NOD, however, did not change their time spend in shelter after using the preferred entrance over the 2 days of the experiment.|
|gbb820-sup-0017-TableS11.doc||Word document||37K||Table S11: Number of mice that changed significantly (A) their preference, (B) their time spent and (C) their time resting outside between days 4 and 6. The right part of the table shows the number of mice per strain showing a combination of the three different responses. This table is complementary to the Venn diagrams of Fig. 3/iii.|
|gbb820-sup-0018-TableS12.doc||Word document||35K||Table S12: Number of outliers per strain (>3× SD of the strain mean) for the four main parameters.|
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