The Rodent Forced Swim Test Measures Stress-Coping Strategy, Not Depression-like Behavior

ACS Chem Neurosci. 2017 May 17;8(5):955-960. doi: 10.1021/acschemneuro.7b00042. Epub 2017 Mar 22.


The forced swim test (FST) measures coping strategy to an acute inescapable stress and thus provides unique insight into the neural limb of the stress response. Stress, particularly chronic stress, is a contributing factor to depression in humans and depression is associated with altered response to stress. In addition, drugs that are effective antidepressants in humans typically promote active coping strategy in the FST. As a consequence, passive coping in the FST has become loosely equated with depression and is often referred to as "depression-like" behavior. This terminology oversimplifies complex biology and misrepresents both the utility and limitations of the FST. The FST provides little construct- or face-validity to support an interpretation as "depression-like" behavior. While stress coping and the FST are arguably relevant to depression, there are likely many factors that can influence stress coping strategy. Importantly, there are other neuropsychiatric disorders characterized by altered responses to stress and difficulty in adapting to change. One of these is autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and several mouse genetic models of ASD exhibit altered stress-coping strategies in the FST. Here we review evidence that argues a more thoughtful consideration of the FST, and more precise terminology, would benefit the study of stress and disorders characterized by altered response to stress, which include but are not limited to depression.

Keywords: Porsolt; Stress; addiction; antidepressants; autism; behavior; serotonin.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Depression / psychology*
  • Disease Models, Animal*
  • Mice
  • Rats
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Swimming / psychology*