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Learn Motiv. 2014 Aug 1;47:18-29.

What-Where-When Memory in the Rodent Odor Span Task.

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University of North Carolina Wilmington, 601 S. College St., Wilmington, NC 28403.


While the Odor Span Task (OST) was developed to assess working memory in rodents, it appears that odor ("What") and time since an odor was last reinforced ("When") jointly control responding in the OST. The OST uses an incrementing non-match to sample procedure such that the number of stimuli to remember increases during the session; the rodent is trained to remember stimuli within a session but not between sessions. We used a variation of the OST to add a "Where" dimension to the task to examine whether rodents could learn to respond to scents based on contextual cues as well. In Experiment 1, 6 rats well-trained on the OST procedure were exposed to four target scents in a holding cage before the OST session began [What-Where-When (WWW) condition]. When these target scents appeared in the OST, rats treated them as novel scents despite their being previously encountered that day; WWW responding was comparable to baseline (BL) responding. Controls were implemented to account for relative familiarity: frequency of target presentation and time since the target odor was presented. On both types of control probes, rats typically responded to target scents less than during WWW or BL conditions, took longer to make a response, and visited more comparison stimuli. In Experiment 2, the study was replicated adding reinforcement delivery for responding to pre-session presentation of target stimuli. Subjects were the same 6 rats plus 2 additional rats also well-trained on the OST. Results were similar to those from Experiment 1. These data indicate that the variables controlling performance on the OST task include What stimulus is presented, Where (i.e., in which location) it was presented, and When it was presented. Thus, the OST-probe methodology may provide a useful vehicle for the study of episodic-like memory processes in non-humans.


Odor Span Task; episodic-like memory; olfactory scents; rats

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