The Application of a Rodent-Based Morris Water Maze (MWM) Protocol to an Investigation of Age-Related Differences in Human Spatial Learning

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The current study applied a rodent-based Morris water maze (MWM) protocol to an investigation of search performance differences between young and older adult humans. To investigate whether similar age-related decline in search performance could be seen in humans based on the rodent-based protocol, we implemented a virtual MWM (vMWM) that has characteristics similar to those of the MWM used in previous studies of spatial learning in mice. Through the use of a proximity to platform measure, robust differences were found between healthy young and older adults in search performance. After dividing older adults into good and poor performers based on a median split of their corrected cumulative proximity values, the age effects in place learning were found to be largely related to search performance differences between the young and poor-performing older adults. When compared with the young, poor-performing older adults exhibited significantly higher proximity values in 83% of 24 place trials and overall in the probe trials that assessed spatial learning in the absence of the hidden platform. In contrast, good-performing older adults exhibited patterns of search performance that were comparable with that of the younger adults in most place and probe trials. Taken together, our findings suggest that the low search accuracy in poor-performing older adults stemmed from potential differences in strategy selection, differences in assumptions or expectations of task demands, as well as possible underlying functional and/or structural changes in the brain regions involved in vMWM search performance.

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