The centre is named after the Sainsbury Centre.

Mice choose best escape route without ever experiencing threat
Mice learn shortest route to a shelter after only 10 minutes of exploring the new environment and do not need previous experience of threat. Credit: © Sainsbury Wellcome Centre

Escape imminent danger is important for survival. Animals need to be able to choose the shortest route to safety if they want to survive. How can they do this without fear in the new environment?

The behavioral strategies that mice use to get to a shelter when they are scared were studied by the neuroscience team at the center.

According to a new study published today in Current Biology, mice don't need previous experience of threat to learn the shortest route to escape after only 10 minutes of exploring the environment.

Many neuroscience studies give mice lots of time to learn how to solve mazes. When faced with threat, mice must escape to shelter as quickly as possible. The question is how do mice learn this quickly without trial and error, according to the author of the paper.

SWC researchers gave mice a choice of two or three routes back to the shelter. The scientists used a loud sound to scare the mice and then observed their route back to shelter.

The direct path to shelter was blocked by the neuroscientists and the mice learned to use one of the other routes. The researchers wanted to know if the mice could choose between two different paths. The mice were not able to see the shortest route in the dark. When there is a larger difference between the lengths of the two paths, mice prefer the shorter path.

To understand how the mice learn, the researchers studied those that were experiencing threat for the first time and found that the inexperienced mice preferred the shorter route. The mice don't have to first experience a threat to learn how to choose the best escape route. After only 10 minutes of exploring the environment, the mice learned this.

Mice choose best escape route without ever experiencing threat
Escape route choice is determined by path distance and angle to shelter. Credit: Current Biology (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.05.020

It is important for a mouse to know how to escape from danger. Mouse priority is to map out space and figure out how to get to a safe place if you put it in a new environment. The behavior of the mouse is natural and does not need to be explicitly instructed, according to Tiago Branco.

The way that animals are thought to learn is to experience the value of something and map that onto the spatial geometry. If mice were exposed to threat many times and felt stressed out, they would assign the longer path a lower value and learn to take the shorter path.

The animals were not doing that in the experiment. The mice assumed that the short route was the best way to escape. This assumption is referred to as an innate heuristic by the researchers. After natural exploration, mice have acquired a set of neural circuits that allow them to make their own decisions.

Animals are good at learning about what matters to them. To understand the mouse brain and the neural circuits that support learning, it is important to look at the behaviors that the mouse has evolved to do and the constraints that they are under.

The researchers looked at three different models and asked if the artificial algorithms could perform as well as the mice in the task. If the artificial mouse was allowed to explore for a long time, the three algorithms all worked well. The real mouse only had 10 minutes to explore.

The researchers fed the artificial mouse with the trajectory of the real mouse and found that the model-free option couldn't learn to choose the shortest path. The model-based models were only half correct when learning the best escape route. The researchers can get some insight into what the brain needs for the mice to be able to choose an optimal escape route.

The next step for the researchers is to understand how the brain works and how mice use this natural paradigm. This question is a small part of the larger puzzle of how animals choose what actions to take based on their expectation of what will be best in the long-term. The neurosciences hope to understand this form of value mapping in an action behavior in order to see how the brain may be using rapid learning.

More information: Federico Claudi et al, Innate heuristics and fast learning support escape route selection in mice, Current Biology (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.05.020 Journal information: Current Biology Provided by Sainsbury Wellcome Centre Citation: How mice choose the best escape route (2022, May 25) retrieved 26 May 2022 from This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.