Touchscreen-paradigm for mice reveals cross-species evidence for an antagonistic relationship of cognitive flexibility and stability

Front Behav Neurosci. 2014 May 5:8:154. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00154. eCollection 2014.


The abilities to either flexibly adjust behavior according to changing demands (cognitive flexibility) or to maintain it in the face of potential distractors (cognitive stability) are critical for adaptive behavior in many situations. Recently, a novel human paradigm has found individual differences of cognitive flexibility and stability to be related to common prefrontal networks. The aims of the present study were, first, to translate this paradigm from humans to mice and, second, to test conceptual predictions of a computational model of prefrontal working memory mechanisms, the Dual State Theory, which assumes an antagonistic relation between cognitive flexibility and stability. Mice were trained in a touchscreen-paradigm to discriminate visual cues. The task involved "ongoing" and cued "switch" trials. In addition distractor cues were interspersed to test the ability to resist distraction, and an ambiguous condition assessed the spontaneous switching between two possible responses without explicit cues. While response times did not differ substantially between conditions, error rates (ER) increased from the "ongoing" baseline condition to the most complex condition, where subjects were required to switch between two responses in the presence of a distracting cue. Importantly, subjects switching more often spontaneously were found to be more distractible by task irrelevant cues, but also more flexible in situations, where switching was required. These results support a dichotomy of cognitive flexibility and stability as predicted by the Dual State Theory. Furthermore, they replicate critical aspects of the human paradigm, which indicates the translational potential of the testing procedure and supports the use of touchscreen procedures in preclinical animal research.

Keywords: Dual State Theory; cognitive flexibility; cognitive stability; executive functioning; mice; neurocomputational models; touchscreen chambers; translation.