The single pellet grasping (SPG) task is a skilled forelimb motor task commonly used to evaluate reaching and grasp kinematics and recovery of forelimb function in rodent models of CNS injuries and diseases. To train rats in the SPG task, the animals are usually food restricted then placed in an SPG task enclosure and presented food pellets on a platform located beyond a slit located at the front of the task enclosure for 10-30 min, normally every weekday for several weeks. When the SPG task is applied in studies involving various experimental groups, training quickly becomes labor intensive, and can yield results with significant day-to-day variability. Furthermore, training is frequently done during the animals' light-cycle, which for nocturnal rodents such as mice and rats could affect performance. Here we describe an automated pellet presentation (APP) robotic system to train and test rats in the SPG task that reduces some of the procedural weaknesses of manual training. We found that APP trained rats performed significantly more trials per 24 h period, and had higher success rates with less daily and weekly variability than manually trained rats. Moreover, the results show that success rates are positively correlated with the number of dark-cycle trials, suggesting that dark-cycle training has a positive effect on success rates. These results demonstrate that automated training is an effective method for evaluating and training skilled reaching performance of rats, opening up the possibility for new approaches to investigating the role of motor systems in enabling skilled forelimb use and new approaches to investigating rehabilitation following CNS injury.
Keywords: Automated animal training; Motor behavior; Rehabilitation; Single pellet grasp; Skilled motor task.
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