Genetic dissection of behavioral flexibility: reversal learning in mice

Biol Psychiatry. 2011 Jun 1;69(11):1109-16. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.01.014. Epub 2011 Mar 9.


Background: Behavioral inflexibility is a feature of schizophrenia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and behavior addictions that likely results from heritable deficits in the inhibitory control over behavior. Here, we investigate the genetic basis of individual differences in flexibility, measured using an operant reversal learning task.

Methods: We quantified discrimination acquisition and subsequent reversal learning in a cohort of 51 BXD strains of mice (2-5 mice/strain, n = 176) for which we have matched data on sequence, gene expression in key central nervous system regions, and neuroreceptor levels.

Results: Strain variation in trials to criterion on acquisition and reversal was high, with moderate heritability (∼.3). Acquisition and reversal learning phenotypes did not covary at the strain level, suggesting that these traits are effectively under independent genetic control. Reversal performance did covary with dopamine D2 receptor levels in the ventral midbrain, consistent with a similar observed relationship between impulsivity and D2 receptors in humans. Reversal, but not acquisition, is linked to a locus on mouse chromosome 10 with a peak likelihood ratio statistic at 86.2 megabase (p < .05 genome-wide). Variance in messenger RNA levels of select transcripts expressed in neocortex, hippocampus, and striatum correlated with the reversal learning phenotype, including Syn3, Nt5dc3, and Hcfc2.

Conclusions: This work demonstrates the clear trait independence between, and genetic control of, discrimination acquisition and reversal and illustrates how globally coherent data sets for a single panel of highly related strains can be interrogated and integrated to uncover genetic sources and molecular and neuropharmacological candidates of complex behavioral traits relevant to human psychopathology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Genome*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Reversal Learning / physiology*
  • Species Specificity