The impact of environmental enrichment in laboratory rats--behavioural and neurochemical aspects

Behav Brain Res. 2011 Sep 12;222(1):246-64. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2011.04.002. Epub 2011 Apr 12.


The provision of environmental enrichment (EE) for laboratory rats is recommended in European guidelines governing laboratory animal welfare. It is believed the EE implementation can improve animals' well-being and EE has been used to demonstrate learning and plasticity of the brain in response to the environment. This review suggests that the definition and duration of EE varies considerably across laboratories. Notwithstanding this, some EE protocols have revealed profound effects on brain neurochemistry and resulting behaviour, suggesting that EE can have the potential to significantly modify these parameters in rats. For this review, a literature search was conducted using PubMed and the search terms "Environmental Enrichment" and "rats". From the results of this search the most important variables for consideration in the implementation of EE are identified and summarised, and include cage size and housing density; rat age, sex and strain; duration of EE; the EE protocol and enrichment items employed; and the use of appropriate controls. The effects of EE in a number of behavioural tests and its effects on neurotransmitters, neurotrophic factors, stress hormones and neurogenesis and proliferation are outlined. The findings summarised in the present review show the range of EE protocols employed and their effects in tests of activity, learning and affect, as well neurochemical effects which mediate enhanced plasticity in the brain. EE, as is provided in many laboratories, may be of benefit to the animals, however it is important that future work aims to provide a better understanding of EE effects on research outcomes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Laboratory
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Brain Chemistry / physiology*
  • Environment*
  • Exploratory Behavior
  • Female
  • Male
  • Maze Learning
  • Rats
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Sex Factors
  • Swimming / psychology