Scientists develop system for animal behaviour automation

By Staff Reporter

- Last updated on GMT

Scientists have developed a new computerised system for controlling
cognitive science experiments through automating animal behaviour
analysis, allowing efficient drug screening and potentially
shortening development time for new drugs.

The computer-controlled system is set to offer a new methodology for rapid and efficient drug screening which could solve the need to employ a highly specialised and expensive screening lab to run a high throughput drug screening operation. Currently, many pharmaceutical companies are screening 100,000-300,000 or more compounds per screen to produce approximately 100-300 hits. On average, one or two of these become lead compound series. Larger screens of up to 1,000,000 compounds in several months may be required to generate something closer to five leads. Scientists from the Forsyth Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology developed a computer-controlled system to overcome a number of problems that exist in current attempts to understand how the brain and nervous system give rise to memory, behaviour, and cognition by studying animal model systems. The system consists of a set of small chambers monitored by digital cameras with chamber containing a set of light, vibration, and other devices. The computer constantly monitors the animal's position and orientation within each dish and provides rewards or noxious stimuli in accordance to the pre-established 'learning' program. For example, a worm may be rewarded with the turning off of a bright light whenever it stays in a small area at the centre of the dish, thus training it to remain in a particular location. Or a tadpole may be trained to move for 5 seconds whenever a bright light is applied making it easy to designate some chambers as controls (where a random or opposite relationship between stimulus and response is given). The system can automatically produce movies of each animal's chamber and a data file from which one can easily compute time spent in each area of the dish, average movement. By running a given protocol in this device, a researcher can gather data for many days without any involvement on their part, thus freeing up valuable time and removing sources of bias. Other labs are then able to analyse the data remotely and mine it to requirements. "This automated technology opens up research in exciting directions,"​ said Michael Levin, Director of the Forsyth Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. "The use of this system will reveal much about cognitive abilities of many different species, while simultaneously eliminating the margin of error. We are looking forward to sharing some of the results of our research with the neurobiology community."​ Philip Stashenko, vice president of research for The Forsyth Institute said that the system also offered great potential for the pharmaceutical industry. "Levin's prototype solves experimental problems in the lab today and offers a solution that will be very useful in the search for the neuromodulatory drugs of the future,"​ he commented. A number of academic and commercial pharmaceutical projects have generated large genetic, proteomic, or small-molecule (drug) libraries that must be screened to identify compounds of interest to both biomedicine and basic biology. Typically this screening is conducted on single cells in culture, or in organisms such as yeast. However, these strategies are insufficient for studying the effect of compounds on complex multicellular systems or nervous system function. If scientists want to find a drug that improves memory or works as a sedative, single-cell models are not informative. Screens on multicellular models, such as zebrafish, have been successful but the current necessity for manual analysis has made it impractical for high-throughput neurological screens.

Related topics: Preclinical Research

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