Environmental Enrichment of Young Adult Rats (Rattus norvegicus) in Different Sensory Modalities Has Long-Lasting Effects on Their Ability to Learn via Specific Sensory Channels

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Sensory modalities individuals use to obtain information from the environment differ among conspecifics. The relative contributions of genetic divergence and environmental plasticity to this variance remain yet unclear. Numerous studies have shown that specific sensory enrichments or impoverishments at the postnatal stage can shape neural development, with potential lifelong effects. For species capable of adjusting to novel environments, specific sensory stimulation at a later life stage could also induce specific long-lasting behavioral effects. To test this possibility, we enriched young adult Norway rats with either visual, auditory, or olfactory cues. Four to 8 months after the enrichment period we tested each rat for their learning ability in 3 two-choice discrimination tasks, involving either visual, auditory, or olfactory stimulus discrimination, in a full factorial design. No sensory modality was more relevant than others for the proposed task per se, but rats performed better when tested in the modality for which they had been enriched. This shows that specific environmental conditions encountered during early adulthood have specific long-lasting effects on the learning abilities of rats. Furthermore, we disentangled the relative contributions of genetic and environmental causes of the response. The reaction norms of learning abilities in relation to the stimulus modality did not differ between families, so interindividual divergence was mainly driven by environmental rather than genetic factors.

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