Aminergic neuromodulation of associative visual learning in harnessed honey bees

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The honey bee Apis mellifera is a major insect model for studying visual cognition. Free-flying honey bees learn to associate different visual cues with a sucrose reward and may deploy sophisticated cognitive strategies to this end. Yet, the neural bases of these capacities cannot be studied in flying insects. Conversely, immobilized bees are accessible to neurobiological investigation but training them to respond appetitively to visual stimuli paired with sucrose reward is difficult. Here we succeeded in coupling visual conditioning in harnessed bees with pharmacological analyses on the role of octopamine (OA), dopamine (DA) and serotonin (5-HT) in visual learning. We also studied if and how these biogenic amines modulate sucrose responsiveness and phototaxis behaviour as intact reward and visual perception are essential prerequisites for appetitive visual learning. Our results suggest that both octopaminergic and dopaminergic signaling mediate either the appetitive sucrose signaling or the association between color and sucrose reward in the bee brain. Enhancing and inhibiting serotonergic signaling both compromised learning performances, probably via an impairment of visual perception. We thus provide a first analysis of the role of aminergic signaling in visual learning and retention in the honey bee and discuss further research trends necessary to understand the neural bases of visual cognition in this insect.

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