Learning about cognition risk with the radial-arm maze in the developmental neurotoxicology battery.
Cognitive dysfunction has been found in epidemiological studies to be among the most sensitive impairments associated with developmental exposure to a variety of environmental contaminants from heavy metals to polyhalogenated hydrocarbons and pesticides. These chemicals have been also shown to impair cognitive function after developmental exposure in experimental animal models. The radial-arm maze (RAM) has proven to be a sensitive and reliable way to assess both learning and memory in a variety of species, most often in rats and mice. The RAM is a very adaptable test method that takes advantage of rodents' instinct to explore new places in the environment to forage. That is, rodents do not need to be trained to run through the maze; they will normally do this from the initial session of testing. Training with differential reinforcement for arm choices provides a more rigorous test of learning and memory. The RAM is quite adaptable for assessing various aspects of cognition. Although the RAM has been mostly used to assess spatial learning and memory, it can be configured to assess non-spatial memory as well. Both working and reference memory can be easily distinguished. The RAM can be run with both appetitive (food reinforced) and aversive (water escape) motivators. The RAM has been found to be sensitive to a wide variety of developmental toxicants including heavy metals such as mercury and pesticides such as chlorpyrifos. There is an extremely rich literature especially with rats showing the effects of many types of brain lesions and drug effects so that the participation of a wide variety of neural systems in RAM performance is known. These systems, notably the hippocampus and frontal cortex, and acetylcholine and glutamate neurotransmitter systems, are the same neural systems that have been shown in humans to be critical for learning and memory. This considerably aids the interpretation of neurobehavioral toxicity studies.
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