Recent studies suggest running wheel activity to be naturally rewarding and reinforcing; considering the shared neuro-behavioural characteristics with drug-induced reward situations, wheel running behaviour gains interest as a tool to study mechanisms underlying reward-sensitivity. Previously, we showed that wheel running has the potential to disrupt the daily organization of home cage behaviour in female C57BL/6 [de Visser L, van den Bos R, Spruijt BM. Automated home cage observations as a tool to measure the effects of wheel running on cage floor locomotion. Behav Brain Res 2005;160:382–8]. In the present study, we investigated the effects of novelty-induced stress on wheel running and its impact on home cage behaviour in male C57BL/6 and DBA/2 mice. Our aim was to determine whether wheel running may be used as a tool to study both genetic and environmentally induced differences in sensitivity to rewarding behaviour in mice. One group of male mice was placed in an automated home cage observation system for 2 weeks with a wheel integrated in the cage. A second group of mice was allowed to habituate to this cage for 1 week before a running wheel was introduced. Results showed a pronounced sensitising effect of novelty on the level of wheel running in C57Bl/6 mice but not in DBA mice. Overall levels of wheel running were higher in DBA/2 mice. Furthermore, wheel running affected circadian rhythmicity in DBA/2 mice but not in C57BL/6 mice.
From these findings we tentatively suggest that wheel running behaviour could serve as a tool to study the interaction between genetic and environmental factors in sensitivity to rewarding behaviour in mice. As it is displayed spontaneously and easy to monitor, wheel running may be well suitable to be included in high-throughput phenotyping assays.