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Towards a training protocol for complex operant tasks for use in rodent welfare research

Year: 2022

Aimee Meikle
University of Glasgow, UK

Supervisor(s): Dr Jasmine Clarkson


Mice are the most commonly and widely used species for scientific research, with many millions used globally each year. An important pre-requisite for their use requires adherence to the prinicple of the 3Rs, including refinement to existing procedures and protocols to make evidence based improvements to animal welfare.  Taking meaninful steps to improve mouse welfare relies on our ability to understand their wants and needs and allowing for the expression of a normal behavioural repertoire despite being kept under laboratory conditions. Traditionally, preference testing has been utilised to determine the value of a specific resource and/or condition to the animal. This often involves, for example, manipulating one aspect of the animals environment, providing a choice, and determining the amount of time spent in one environment over another. However, preference testing has significant limitations including the requirement for locomotion, which can be affected by a number of different factors such as the effects of scientific procedures or induced disease status. Therefore, alternative methods that are less reliant on locomotion are needed. One paradigm that has been highlighted in recent years is the use of complex operant tasks with the field of study termed 'operant animal welfare science'. However, despite being considered potentially powerful, operant approaches have remained under-utilised in welfare contexts.

Therefore, the aim of this project is to make progress towards a validated training protocol for laboratory mice to learn to criterion in a complex operant task that can be used in a welfare context. This will include understanding more about the factors that positively and negatively effect the learning during training.

Mice will be taught the components of the task in a step-wise fashion of increasing complexity, culminating in the final operant task. Individual steps will aim to associate an action with an outcome.

The focus of this project will be on working towards a suitable criterion for each phase of training  as well as identifying which will signal progression to the next phase of training. Our findings will inform underpinning guidance for the development of training protocols including refinements and aids to sample size determination specific to laboratory mice and as such has widespread potential to increase uptake of operant paradigms in rodent welfare research.