Decreased environmental complexity during development impairs habituation of reinforcer effectiveness of sensory stimuli
Previous research has shown that rats reared in simple/impoverished environments demonstrate greater repetitive responding for sensory reinforcers (e.g., light onset). Moreover, the brains of these rats are abnormally developed, compared to brains of rats reared in more complex/enriched environments. Repetitive behaviors are commonly observed in individuals with developmental disorders. Some of these repetitive behaviors could be maintained by the reinforcing effects of the sensory stimulation that they produce. Therefore, rearing rats in impoverished conditions may provide an animal model for certain repetitive behaviors associated with developmental disorders. We hypothesize that in rats reared in simple/impoverished environments, the normal habituation process to sensory reinforcers is impaired, resulting in high levels of repetitive behaviors. We tested the hypothesis using an operant sensory reinforcement paradigm in rats reared in simple/impoverished (IC), standard laboratory (SC), and complex/enrichened conditions (EC, treatments including postnatal handling and environmental enrichment). Results show that the within-session habituation of the reinforcer effectiveness of light onset was slower in the IC and SC rats than in the EC rats. A dishabituation challenge indicated that within-session decline of responses was due to habituation and not motor fatigue or sensory adaptation. In conclusion, rearing rats in simple/impoverished environments, and comparing them to rats reared in more complex/enriched environments, may constitute a useful approach for studying certain repetitive behaviors associated with developmental disorders.