How Rats Smell May Address "Replication Crisis"

Former Institute Fellow Donald Frederick, Ph.D. and Institute Member Leslie Kay, Ph.D. help resolve a 15-year-old scientific dispute about how rats process odors


Frederick, D.E., Brown, A., Tacopina, S., Mehta, N., Vujovic, M., Brim, E., Amina, T., Fixsen, B., & Kay, L.M. (2017). Task-Dependent Behavioral Dynamics Make the Case for Temporal Integration in Multiple Strategies during Odor Processing. Journal of Neuroscience, 37(16), 4416-4426. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1797-16.2017. PubMed PMID: 28336570. PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5413182.


Differing results in olfactory-based decision-making research regarding the amount of time that rats and mice use to identify odors have led to some disagreements about odor-processing mechanics, including whether or not rodents use temporal integration (i.e., sniffing longer to identify odors better). Reported differences in behavioral strategies may be due to the different types of tasks used in different laboratories. Some researchers have reported that animals performing two-alternative choice (TAC) tasks need only 1–2 sniffs and do not increase performance with longer sampling. Others have reported that animals performing go/no-go (GNG) tasks increase sampling times and performance for difficult discriminations, arguing for temporal integration. We present results from four experiments comparing GNG and TAC tasks over several behavioral variables (e.g., performance, sampling duration). When rats know only one task, they perform better in GNG than in TAC. However, performance was not statistically different when rats learned and were tested in both tasks. Rats sample odors longer in GNG than in TAC, even when they know both tasks and perform them in the same or different sessions. Longer sampling is associated with better performance for both tasks in difficult discriminations, which supports the case for temporal integration over ≥2–6 sniffs in both tasks. These results illustrate that generalizations from a single task about behavioral or cognitive abilities (e.g., processing, perception) do not capture the full range of complexity and can significantly impact inferences about general abilities in sensory perception.

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