Assessment of Executive Function and Higher-Order Cognition in Animals
Introduction to Executive Function and Cognition
Executive function (EF) is a complex construct that reflects multiple higher-order cognitive processes such as planning, updating, inhibiting, and set-shifting, and it exhibits significant age-related differences. Some scholars believe that EF dysfunction is a basic feature of human cognitive aging. Comparative studies have clarified that the unique characteristics of human cognition and brain aging are the same as those of other primates. Therefore, it is important to determine the extent to which other non-human primates (NHP) age-related EF and related neural matrix decline.
Executive Function and Higher-Order Cognition in Animals
Cognitive aging research used several NHP, based on their unique characteristics with humans, such as kinship (chimpanzee, macaque), short life span (squirrel lemur, marmoset), or the possibility of specific brain pathologies (chimpanzee, Grey mouse lemur). It was found that in all NHP, a significant decrease in EF was positively correlated with cognitive function.
Fig.1 VBM analysis of age-related decline in grey matter volume in the chimpanzee brain. (Lacreuse, 2020)
In addition, rodents mimic the EF of human aging, which is an important part of the targeted and rationality of formulating and testing effective treatment and prevention of age-related cognitive decline. Many key neuroanatomical and functional features of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) are preserved in rodents, allowing for meaningful cross-species comparisons related to cognitive aging research. The detection of working memory and cognitive flexibility is a key method for evaluating rodent EF.
Fig.2 Homology between human and rodent prefrontal cortex. (Bizon, 2012)
Methods of Assessing Executive Function
- Working memory test method:
- Delayed alternation task.
- Maze task: Radial arm maze task / Barnes maze task / Delayed match-to-sample water maze task.
- Cognitive flexibility testing methods:
- Digging set-shifting task.
- Maze-based set-shifting task.
- Operant set-shifting task.
Given that EF is usually framed by "higher-order" cognitive functions, many neuroscience tools such as in vivo neuroimaging, electrophysiology, and histological research can be combined with cognitive assessment to reveal age-related cognitions.
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- Lacreuse, A.; et al. Age-related decline in executive function as a hallmark of cognitive ageing in primates: an overview of cognitive and neurobiological studies. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 2020, 375(1811): 20190618.
- Bizon, J.L.; et al. Characterizing cognitive aging of working memory and executive function in animal models. Frontiers in aging neuroscience. 2012, 4: 19.