Recycle Your Old iPad … for Behavioral Neuroscience!

Ooh Ooh Ooh! They Finally Did It!

So a while back, in my second post, I wrote about an arduino-based iPod testing system for operant conditioning. I alluded to the existence of a paper that finally came out within this last month that provides a software to run an iPad and iPod testing systems for rodents and mice using parts that can be buzzarded from aftermarket operant chambers.

I am going to talk about the paper entitled, “Need to train your rat? There is an App for that: A touchscreen behavioral evaluation system”, by Josh Wolf and colleagues from Ken Leising’s lab at TCU. Link to Paper


What is Being Studied and Why?

This manuscript describes the nitty gritty of the development of an iPad testing system and the official release of an app (TBES) in the App Store in iTunes. This app allows the control of an iPad using Visual Basic or other scripts ported from whatever operant chamber systems is currently being used by the research lab. Importantly, the app also uses the response of the rats on the iPad to guide reward delivery.

One reason I find this so exciting is that not all of us have $50,000 for a touchscreen operant chamber system (this price is from a US based distributor of a turnkey 4 touchscreen chamber solution-and this price is actually rather a good deal). Now, if you have a non-touchscreen operant chamber system (i.e., MedAssociates system) it can easily be retrofit with this iPad touchscreen system. Overall, this reduced the cost of 4 chambers by approximately $48,000-assuming that there are operant chambers sitting around or easily purchasable off eBay. One also can check the basement of Psychology departments, they often will have a half dozen of these old systems moldering.


An Innovative Approach

What I find so innovative with this approach is that flexibility is build in. At present, the TBES system from this group is only configured through simple operant conditioning, but it is fully programmable by anyone with even a little experience in developing operant chamber protocols. This means that if I, for example, want to set up a home-cage testing system for mice using an iPad mini, I can build a very inexpensive system using spare parts (e.g., a pellet or water dispenser) and a very little bit of computer coding.

Importantly, this article goes through the troubleshooting process the authors went through in optimizing their approach, so one can directly learn from their mistakes without having to email them to beg advice. Detailed measurements and descriptions of the modifications they made to the operant chamber itself as well as the stimuli they coded into the software defaults are described and the rationale is given.

What this method lacks is the extensive development that the top of the line touchscreen systems developed by the Bussey-Saksida Lab that I wrote about a few posts back. These systems directly benefit from Tim and Lisa spending decades optimizing tasks and developing new protocols, as well as debugging code. This debugging is critical to prevent hangups and random data deletion so that have long plagued operant-chamber research developed using in house software.

Further importance, and perhaps the crux of this article, is the fact that the exact ames apparatus and parameters can be used to test humans and animals with this system. In short, you take the iPad out of the box and give it to a child or an adult participant and you can actually directly compare cross-species performance on exactly the same task. For example I can see myself using this system for tasks evaluating spatial or temporal processing in mouse genetic disease models, simple attentional tasks, and any number of spatial or associative learning tasks and directly comparing these results to those from young participants from the clinical population that I am modeling with the mice.


Take Home Message

I think this is a great system for anyone like me that wants to tinker with behavioral paradigms. Even better, it gives researchers something to do with that spare iPad they have after they upgraded. Systems such as this and the ArduiPod box require a level of sophistication in coding, but they open quantitative research to more researchers that would never have considered that direction (read: me).


Conclusion

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p>So my TL;DR to this post is that I find this new app and description of an iPad testing system using an off the shelf non-touchscreen operant chamber absolutely neat-o. It provides a starter system for labs that do not have the resources for a commercial touchscreen system a way to test the waters, as well as the flexibility to move beyond the paradigms currently available on the touchscreen systems.

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