Acute stress impairs set-shifting but not reversal learning

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Abstract

The ability to update and modify previously learned behavioral responses in a changing environment is essential for successful utilization of promising opportunities and for coping with adverse events. Valid models of cognitive flexibility that contribute to behavioral flexibility include set-shifting and reversal learning. One immediate effect of acute stress is the selective impairment of performance on higher-order cognitive control tasks mediated by the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) but not the hippocampus. Previous studies show that the mPFC is required for set-shifting but not for reversal learning, therefore the aim of the present experiment is to assess whether exposure to acute stress (15 min of mild tail-pinch stress) given immediately before testing on either a set-shifting or reversal learning tasks would impair performance selectively on the set-shifting task. An automated operant chamber-based task, confirmed that exposure to acute stress significantly disrupts set-shifting but has no effect on reversal learning. Rats exposed to an acute stressor require significantly more trials to reach criterion and make significantly more perseverative errors. Thus, these data reveal that an immediate effect of acute stress is to impair mPFC-dependent cognition selectively by disrupting the ability to inhibit the use of a previously relevant cognitive strategy.

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