Reversal learning and associative memory impairments in a BACHD rat model for Huntington disease

PLoS One. 2013 Nov 1;8(11):e71633. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0071633. eCollection 2013.


Chorea and psychiatric symptoms are hallmarks of Huntington disease (HD), a neurodegenerative disorder, genetically characterized by the presence of expanded CAG repeats (>35) in the Huntingtin (HTT) gene. HD patients present psychiatric symptoms prior to the onset of motor symptoms and we recently found a similar emergence of non motor and motor deficits in BACHD rats carrying the human full length mutated HTT (97 CAG-CAA repeats). We evaluated cognitive performance in reversal learning and associative memory tests in different age cohorts of BACHD rats. Male wild type (WT) and transgenic (TG) rats between 2 and 12 months of age were tested. Learning and strategy shifting were assessed in a cross-maze test. Associative memory was evaluated in different fear conditioning paradigms (context, delay and trace). The possible confound of a fear conditioning phenotype by altered sensitivity to a 'painful' stimulus was assessed in a flinch-jump test. In the cross maze, 6 months old TG rats showed a mild impairment in reversal learning. In the fear conditioning tasks, 4, 6 and 12 months old TG rats showed a marked reduction in contextual fear conditioning. In addition, TG rats showed impaired delay conditioning (9 months) and trace fear conditioning (3 months). This phenotype was unlikely to be affected by a change in 'pain' sensitivity as WT and TG rats showed no difference in their threshold response in the flinch-jump test. Our results suggest that BACHD rats have a profound associative memory deficit and, possibly, a deficit in reversal learning as assessed in a cross maze task. The time course for the emergence of these symptoms (i.e., before the occurrence of motor symptoms) in this rat model for HD appears similar to the time course in patients. These data suggest that BACHD rats may be a useful model for preclinical drug discovery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Association Learning
  • Conditioning, Psychological
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Huntington Disease / psychology*
  • Male
  • Maze Learning
  • Memory Disorders / psychology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Rats, Transgenic
  • Reaction Time
  • Reversal Learning*

Grant support

This work was supported by Neuromodel (grant no. 215618-2), an academic-industrial Initial Training Network on innovative treatment approaches of Huntington and Parkinson disease, funded through the people programme FP7 of the European Union. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.