(ORDO NEWS) — Neuroscientists have demonstrated the flexibility of innate behavior in mice. In a series of experiments, they trained animals to suppress threat avoidance responses and also demonstrated their connection with the social environment.
Some behaviors that are critical to survival seem to be programmed from birth. For example, many animals without prior experience and training know how to escape to safety from a perceived threat. However, it is also important for them to learn about the world and adapt to its ever-changing circumstances.
So, pets no longer perceive as threats many of the phenomena that frightened their ancestors. So scientists are wondering how the nervous system learns to adapt behavior throughout life.
Researchers at University College London (UK) studied avoidance responses in mice. In an article published in the journal Current Biology, the authors said that while escape behavior can be reliably identified in the laboratory, mice can easily learn to suppress their responses and ignore frightening but actually harmless stimuli.
During the experiments, scientists projected an expanding dark disk over the heads of the rodents, simulating the approach of a predator.
The resulting avoidance response was used as a starting point for assessing the variability of this type of behavior. They then repeatedly presented this stimulus. However, not all mice then learned to suppress their behavior.
So the researchers set up a barrier to block access to the nearest hiding place and adjusted the contrast of the stimuli to create a gradient from low to high threat. These adjustments made it possible to finally suppress avoidance reactions in the subjects.
The effect persisted for several weeks. However, the mice continued to run away if presented with another previously unfamiliar threatening stimulus, such as a loud noise.
This means that the avoidance response is not just a reflex: it depends on the memories of previous experiences and, therefore, is under cognitive control.
The scientists also assessed the influence of the social environment on behavioral responses. It turned out that mice that lived in large groups were less likely to run away during individual testing. At the same time, rodents that were isolated from relatives were more vigilant and shy.
According to the authors, the results of their study can be used to study the neural mechanisms underlying the variability of innate behavior and the brain regions that are involved in these reactions. Such scientific work will help answer the question of how learning is related to our innate tendencies to certain behaviors.
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