Early-life nutritional stress affects associative learning and spatial memory but not performance on a novel object test

in Behaviour
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Developmental environments can have long-term effects on cognition. Multiple aspects of cognition may be affected by unfavourable conditions during development if underlying neuronal structures are maturing simultaneously. We investigated the effects of nutritional stress at different stages of development on adult associative learning, spatial memory, and behaviours towards a novel object in a songbird. Zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) were raised in consistently high or low food conditions until post-hatch day (PHD) 36 (i.e., nutritional independence), where half of the birds from each condition were switched to the other condition until PHD 61. Subjects were then tested as adults with two associative learning tasks, a hippocampus-dependent spatial memory task, and for responses toward a novel object. Surprisingly, low food treatment before independence facilitated spatial associative learning but impaired an aspect of hippocampus-dependent spatial memory. Responses to a novel object were not altered by treatments. This study demonstrates that developmental stress is able to influence learning without simultaneously affecting a measure of personality.



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  • Diagram of the apparatus and example response contingencies for the colour and spatial associative learning tasks (the arrow indicates location of the food reward). The hole in the centre was never rewarded during training or testing. (a) In the colour task, the food reward is always beneath the piece of yarn that is distinguishable by colour from the other pieces of yarn on the wooden block. (b) In the spatial task the food reward is always beneath a piece of yarn in one of the four corners of the block, in this case, the bottom-right.

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  • Diagram of the apparatus for the hippocampus-dependent spatial memory task.

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  • Estimated marginal means for measures of reactions towards a novel object, after adjusting for growth rate covariates. Nutritional manipulations did not affect the amount of spent in the half of the cage when the novel object (a), or the amount of time spent on the perch containing the novel object (b). Sample sizes for each treatment are indicated at the bottom of the bars. Errors are SEM.

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  • Main effect of pre-independence treatment on associative learning. L treatment before independence facilitated learning of the spatial associative task (a), but there was no effect of treatment after independence on associative learning (b). Bars represent estimated marginal means after adjusting for growth rate covariates. Sample sizes for each treatment are indicated at the bottom of the bars. Errors are SEM.

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  • Main effect of pre-independence treatment on perseverative errors. L treatment before independence reduced the number of perseverative errors committed during the spatial associative learning task. Nutritional treatments after independence did not significantly affect perseverative errors. Bars represent estimated marginal means after adjusting for growth rate covariates. Sample sizes for each treatment are indicated at the bottom of the bars. Errors are SEM.

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  • Interaction of treatment on hippocampus-dependent spatial memory. Pre-independence H treatment increased number of cups searched during the last probe trial, indicating differences between treatments in relearning (a) while post-independence treatments had no effect. Pre-independence L treatment increased the number of revisits to previously searched cups during the first probe trial (b), but post-independence treatments again had no effect. Points represent estimated marginal means after adjusting for growth rate, age at time of testing, and training trials needed to learn the task. Errors are SEM.

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