Using wheel availability to shape running behavior of the rat towards improved behavioral and neurobiological outcomes

J Neurosci Methods. 2017 Oct 1:290:13-23. doi: 10.1016/j.jneumeth.2017.07.009. Epub 2017 Jul 15.


Background: Though voluntary wheel running (VWR) has been used extensively to induce changes in both behavior and biology, little attention has been given to the way in which different variables influence VWR. This lack of understanding has led to an inability to utilize this behavior to its full potential, possibly blunting its effects on the endpoints of interest.

New method: We tested how running experience, sex, gonadal hormones, and wheel apparatus influence VWR in a range of wheel access "doses".

Results: VWR increases over several weeks, with females eventually running 1.5 times farther and faster than males. Limiting wheel access can be used as a tool to motivate subjects to run but restricts maximal running speeds attained by the rodents. Additionally, circulating gonadal hormones regulate wheel running behavior, but are not the sole basis of sex differences in running.

Comparison with existing method(s): Limitations from previous studies include the predominate use of males, emphasis on distance run, variable amounts of wheel availability, variable light-dark cycles, and possible food and/or water deprivation. We designed a comprehensive set of experiments to address these inconsistencies, providing data regarding the "microfeatures" of running, including distance run, time spent running, running rate, bouting behavior, and daily running patterns.

Conclusions: By systematically altering wheel access, VWR behavior can be finely tuned - a feature that we hypothesize is due to its positive incentive salience. We demonstrate how to maximize VWR, which will allow investigators to optimize exercise-induced changes in their behavioral and/or biological endpoints of interest.

Keywords: Exercise; Gonadal hormones; Physical activity; Positive incentive salience; Wheel deprivation; Wheel running.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Castration
  • Estrous Cycle / physiology
  • Female
  • Male
  • Neurobiology*
  • Physical Conditioning, Animal* / instrumentation
  • Physical Conditioning, Animal* / methods
  • Physical Conditioning, Animal* / physiology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Running / physiology*
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Time Factors