Maneuvering safely through the environment is central to survival of all animals. The ability to do this depends on learning and remembering locations. This capacity is encoded in the brain by two systems: one using cues outside the organism (distal cues), allocentric navigation, and one using self-movement, internal cues and sometimes proximal cues, egocentric navigation. Allocentric navigation involves the hippocampus, entorhinal cortex, and surrounding structures (e.g., subiculum); in humans this system encodes declarative memory (allocentric, semantic, and episodic, i.e., memory for people, places, things, and events). This form of memory is assessed in laboratory animals by many methods, but predominantly the Morris water maze (MWM). Egocentric navigation involves the dorsal striatum and connected structures; in humans this system encodes routes and integrated paths and when over-learned becomes implicit or procedural memory. Several allocentric methods for rodents are reviewed and compared with the MWM with particular focus on the Cincinnati water maze (CWM). MWM advantages include minimal training, no food deprivation, ease of testing, reliable learning, insensitivity to differences in body weight and appetite, absence of non-performers, control methods for performance effects, repeated testing capability and other factors that make this test well-suited for regulatory studies. MWM limitations are also reviewed. Evidence-based MWM design and testing methods are presented. On balance, the MWM is arguably the preferred test for assessing learning and memory in basic research and regulatory studies and the CWM is recommended if two tests can be accommodated so that both allocentric (MWM) and egocentric (CWM) learning and memory can be effectively and efficiently assessed.
Does the radial arm maze necessarily test spatial memory?
Since its design 25 years ago (Olton & Samuelson, 1976), the eight-arm radial maze has become very popular and is now widely used to assess spatial memory in rodents. Two versions of the full-baited maze protocol are present in the literature: with or without confinement between the visit of each arm. The confinement was introduced by Olton himself as early as 1977 (Olton, Collison, & Werz, 1977) to eliminate stereotypic behaviors that he had previously observed. It is widely regarded that the confinement prevents rodents from developing these response patterns, and as such it is considered an improved procedure to test spatial memory. Surprisingly, to the best of our knowledge, no study has been especially designed to demonstrate the efficacy of the confinement in blocking the stereotypic behaviors of the animals. The present study compares the strategies of rats trained with or without a confinement procedure. The results show that, after nine days of training, rats submitted to a 5- or a 10-s confinement reach the same level of performance as rats without confinement. The confinement totally prevents stereotypic behaviors like clockwise serial searching strategies which are often observed without confinement. Even a 0-s confinement is sufficient to prevent clockwise strategies, but rats seem to develop other stratagems which do not imply spatial memory. Furthermore, rats previously trained without confinement are unable to perform the task when confinement is introduced on a test day. In contrast, rats previously trained with confinement perform the task correctly when the confinement is no longer present. Thus, without confinement, good levels of performance can be achieved without precise spatial representations.
Value of water mazes for assessing spatial and egocentric learning and memory in rodent basic research and regulatory studies.