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Characterization of a "three-choice" serial reaction time task as a model for studying the neuronal basis of visual attention and executive functions in the rat

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Totah, N., Homayoun, H., & Moghaddam, B. (2006). Characterization of a "three-choice" serial reaction time task as a model for studying the neuronal basis of visual attention and executive functions in the rat. Poster presented at 36th Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience (Neuroscience 2006), Atlanta, GA, USA.

Experimental paradigms modeling specific domains of cognition such as attention are essential for studying the neural basis of mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and ADHD. The 3-choice serial reaction time task (CSRT) is an analog of the 5-CSRT task used to study visual attention in the rat. The task requires a rat to divide attention between 3 light stimuli presented in random order across nosepoke holes in an operant conditioning chamber. A correct response into a lit cue results in a reward delivery, while an incorrect response into an unlit cue or a missed response is punished with house-light extinguishment. Training consisted of 6 levels, defined by cue light duration (15 sec to 300 msec); moving to the next level required 3 consecutive days above criterion performance. Approximately 97% of rats achieved criterion performance at the last level after approximately 50 sessions, which indicated a shorter training requirement than the 5-choice version. Nevertheless, training on this task led to levels of accuracy, premature responses, and errors of commission and omission that were comparable to those reported in the 5-choice task. Accuracy, the primary measure of attentional capacity, decreased with each subsequent level as expected by the progressively increasing load on attentional processing. At the final level (300 ms cue duration), accuracy of responding was stabilized at around 77.2±0.4%, indicating that attentional processing was sufficiently taxed. Omissions and premature responses were stabilized at relatively low levels of 6.1±0.2% and 8.6±0.5%, respectively, indicating that rats had learned the temporal structure of the task. These levels of accuracy and error provide a level of performance upon which drug-induced enhancement and impairment of attention can be measured. Studies characterizing the effects of systemic and prefrontal sub-region microinjection of dopaminergic and glutamatergic drugs on the task are underway. We conclude that the 3-CSRT task can be used to train rats in a visual attention task in order to investigate the neural basis of attention and model disturbances of executive functioning in mental disorders.