Rapid Spatial Learning Controls Instinctive Defensive Behavior in Mice

Curr Biol. 2017 May 8;27(9):1342-1349. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.03.031. Epub 2017 Apr 13.


Instinctive defensive behaviors are essential for animal survival. Across the animal kingdom, there are sensory stimuli that innately represent threat and trigger stereotyped behaviors such as escape or freezing [1-4]. While innate behaviors are considered to be hard-wired stimulus-responses [5], they act within dynamic environments, and factors such as the properties of the threat [6-9] and its perceived intensity [1, 10, 11], access to food sources [12-14], and expectations from past experience [15, 16] have been shown to influence defensive behaviors, suggesting that their expression can be modulated. However, despite recent work [2, 4, 17-21], little is known about how flexible mouse innate defensive behaviors are and how quickly they can be modified by experience. To address this, we have investigated the dependence of escape behavior on learned knowledge about the spatial environment and how the behavior is updated when the environment changes acutely. Using behavioral assays with innately threatening visual and auditory stimuli, we show that the primary goal of escape in mice is to reach a previously memorized shelter location. Memory of the escape target can be formed in a single shelter visit lasting less than 20 s, and changes in the spatial environment lead to a rapid update of the defensive action, including changing the defensive strategy from escape to freezing. Our results show that although there are innate links between specific sensory features and defensive behavior, instinctive defensive actions are surprisingly flexible and can be rapidly updated by experience to adapt to changing spatial environments.

Keywords: defensive behavior; escape; freezing; innate behavior; mouse; shelter; spatial learning; spatial memory.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Escape Reaction*
  • Instinct*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Spatial Learning / physiology*