The water maze is commonly used to assay spatial cognition, or, more generally, learning and memory in experimental rodent models. In the water maze, mice or rats are trained to navigate to a platform located below the water's surface. Spatial learning is then typically assessed in a probe test, where the platform is removed from the pool and the mouse or rat is allowed to search for it. Performance in the probe test may then be evaluated using either occupancy-based (percent time in a virtual quadrant [Q] or zone [Z] centered on former platform location), error-based (mean proximity to former platform location [P]) or counting-based (platform crossings [X]) measures. While these measures differ in their popularity, whether they differ in their ability to detect group differences is not known. To address this question we compiled five separate databases, containing more than 1600 mouse probe tests. Random selection of individual trials from respective databases then allowed us to simulate experiments with varying sample and effect sizes. Using this Monte Carlo-based method, we found that the P measure consistently outperformed the Q, Z and X measures in its ability to detect group differences. This was the case regardless of sample or effect size, and using both parametric and non-parametric statistical analyses. The relative superiority of P over other commonly used measures suggests that it is the most appropriate measure to employ in both low- and high-throughput water maze screens.
Keywords: Monte Carlo simulation; hippocampus; non-parametric; parametric; water maze.