Daytime Light Intensity Modulates Spatial Learning and Hippocampal Plasticity in Female Nile Grass Rats (Arvicanthis niloticus)

Neuroscience. 2019 Apr 15;404:175-183. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2019.01.031. Epub 2019 Jan 26.


Light has pervasive effects on the physiology and behavior of mammals. Several human studies have shown that light modulates cognitive functions; however, the mechanisms responsible for the effects of light remain unclear. Our previous work using diurnal male Nile grass rats (Arvicanthis niloticus) revealed that reduced illuminance during the day leads to impairments in hippocampal-dependent spatial learning/memory, reduced CA1 dendritic spine density, and attenuated hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) expression in males. The present study examined the impact of ambient light intensity on hippocampal functions in female grass rats and explored sex differences in behavioral and hippocampal responses. Female grass rats were housed in either a 12:12-hr bright light-dark (brLD, 1000 lx) or dim light-dark (dimLD, 50 lx) cycle for four weeks. The dimLD group showed impaired spatial memory in the Morris water maze task and reduced CA1 apical dendritic spine density, similar to prior observations in males. However, the behavioral deficits seen in females were more severe than those seen in males, with dimLD females showing no evidence of long-term retention over the 24-hour periods between training sessions. In contrast to the attenuated hippocampal BDNF expression found in dimLD males, there was no significant difference in the expression of BDNF and of its receptor TrkB between females in brLD and dimLD. The results suggest that, as seen in male grass rats, reduced illuminance during the day impairs hippocampal-dependent spatial memory and hippocampal plasticity in female diurnal grass rats, but the underlying signaling pathways responsible for the effects of light restriction may differ between the sexes.

Keywords: diurnal rodents; hippocampus; light; plasticity; sex differences; spatial memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / metabolism
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Dendritic Spines / metabolism
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / metabolism
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Light
  • Maze Learning / physiology
  • Murinae
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Photoperiod*
  • Receptor, trkB / metabolism
  • Spatial Learning / physiology*
  • Spatial Memory / physiology*


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • Receptor, trkB