Last Updated on June 2, 2022

1. Head-Fixation in Neuroscience Research

Head-fixation is widely used in the field of behavioral neuroscience in awake behaving animals to better understand the cortical involvement in animal behaviors. Our understanding of topics such as associative learning, sensory perception, navigation and motor control have been greatly improved by head-fixed experimental preparations. The restraint and motion minimization of the animal’s head minimizes noise and motion artifacts often seen in freely moving studies, which allows for stimulus control studies, perturbation experiments, neural recordings and in vivo cellular imaging. It also simplifies the experimental set-up design and data analysis, allowing for chronic and long-duration studies as many systems facilitate accurate repeated alignment between the animal’s head and the restraining system.

Most recently, head-fixation has been used alongside advanced techniques such as high-density electrophysiology recordings and two-photon imaging to investigate neural circuits in vivo that would not be possible to study in freely moving subjects.

2. Limitations to Most Head-Fixation Systems

However, there are a number of limitations that need to be considered when carrying out large-scale monitoring of neuronal activity under head-fixed operant conditions.

  • Many models of head-fixation assume that head movements don’t occur when the animal is restrained. Some subtle movements of the animal’s head that cannot be easily observed or taken into consideration when doing data analysis can result in noise or artifact production. This can lead to significant confounding variables, with a misinterpretation of neural activity associated with animal behavior. Choosing the correct head-fixation instrumentation reduces the risk of confounding variables associated with involuntary head movements.
  • Measuring motor responses in rats or mice by monitoring whisker movements and licking behavior have been used in conditional behavioral tasks in the past. However, these motor movements are driven by a pathway in the brain involving automatic repetition that involves the brainstem. Identifying a reliable, measurable movement under operant learning conditions is imperative to accurately associate cortical activity with behavior.

3. Skilled Motor Movements in Operant Conditioning

Skilled motor movements are a good measure of operant learning, as rats and mice are naturally able to perform voluntary skilled motor movements using their forelimbs. Skilled movements are intentional isolated movements with specific parts of the body, which require the recruitment of different neural pathways that contain different subtypes of neurons firing with synchronicity. A number of operant learning paradigms can be studied by measuring forelimb movement response under head-restraint conditions alongside high-density electrophysiology recordings or two-photon imaging. It is important to consider the type of restraining system to use when studying voluntary forelimb movement in rodents.

4. Case Study – Microcircuitry coordination of cortical motor information in self-initiation of voluntary movements

Using the TaskForcer (O’Hara) restraining system, The Isomura* group at the University of Tokyo uncovered functional diversity of pyramidal cells and the uniformity activation of fast-­spiking interneurons across all cortical layers in the expression of trained rodent voluntary movement. Furthermore, they identified a pattern of excitatory synaptic interactions among neighboring neurons that play different roles in self-initiated voluntary forelimb movement.

Experimental Procedure

Juxtacellular and multi-unit recordings were taken from the motor cortex of 74 rats who were head-restrained and trained to repeat voluntary forelimbs movements. The juxta-­cellular recording technique was implemented as it provides accurate spike events and morphological features for a cortical or subcortical neuron. The multiunit recording technique is useful for exploring the synaptic connectivity of many neurons simultaneously while remaining blind and unbiased.

Amuza TaskForcer

A multi-­rat task-­training system was developed to simultaneously train up to six adult rats on an operant voluntary forelimb-­movement task. During the operant trials, the trainee rats quickly learned the relationship between the lever and the water reward. This led to the trainee rats casually grabbing the lever with their right forelimb for their reward instead of struggling during the restraining process. 

TaskForcer Lever

All 74 rats were successfully able to perform the operant motor task in just 8 days of training. Post training, the rats were transferred to a recording room where they were able to perform the same casual operant motor task during juxtacellular and multiunit recordings. Several distinct  patterns of neuronal firing at an electrode site in relation to the forelimb-­movement task were revealed during these multi-unit recordings.

Focus on results!

When research animals are stressed or distracted, training can slow and your results are what will suffer variability. Unlike other systems that allow rodents to essentially “run free” while attempting to perform tasks at the same time, Amuza’s TaskForcer eliminates those distractions—and their effects on your data.

Resources

*Isomura Y, Harukuni R, Takekawa T, Aizawa H, Fukai T. Microcircuitry coordination of cortical motor information in self-initiation of voluntary movements. Nat Neurosci. 2009 Dec;12(12):1586-93. doi: 10.1038/nn.2431. Epub 2009 Nov 8. PMID: 19898469.