Behavioural research gets boost with first open-access database

Neuroscience researchers at Western University have developed the first open-access repository for raw data from mouse cognitive testing. Called MouseBytes, the database gives researchers a platform to share rodent cognition data using touchscreen cognitive testing with labs around the world. It is supported by Western’s BrainsCAN, and built on previous funding from the Weston Brain Institute.

A new paper published last week in the journal eLife describes how MouseBytes can enhance transparency, data sharing and reproducibility in research findings. By sharing research data and working collaboratively, researchers can use MouseBytes to gain an improved understanding of rodent cognition – and ultimately, discover insights into how the human brain works. The work involved expertise from researchers at a number of institutions, including Western and the University of Guelph.

“MouseBytes allows researchers to upload data to a repository where everyone has access,” said Marco Prado, PhD, Professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “Open science ensures that by having increased availability of datasets, researchers can reuse, reinterpret and reanalyze data to find new avenues for research.”

The development of MouseBytes was possible with touchscreen cognitive testing – a form of behavioural testing developed by Western researchers, Lisa Saksida PhD and Tim Bussey PhD. In the touchscreen testing environment, mice are trained to take part in cognitive tests by touching images on an iPad-like touchscreen – exactly like cognitive tests for humans. While the mouse is completing a task, researchers can track its neural activity.

“The best thing about the touchscreen tasks is they are very similar and sometimes the same as tasks for humans,” said Flavio Beraldo, Research Associate at the Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. “We can compare humans and mice side-by-side to see if they have the same response to a task.”

“Touchscreens can also be seen as an improvement over other methods to motivate behaviour,” said Bussey, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry Professor. “Touchscreens achieve the same aim using strawberry milkshake, which mice love.”

The touchscreen system includes behavioural protocols controlled by a computer system, allowing increased standardization of research results. Since the systems are regulated, researchers can replicate tests completed at any of the over 300 labs around the world using the touchscreen method.

“By pairing a behavioural system, such as touchscreen cognitive testing, with MouseBytes, we’re able to start standardizing experiments that were previously not able to be standardized,” said Daniel Palmer, postdoctoral associate at Robarts Research Institute. “This allows us to compare data sources that were previously not able to be compared.”

MouseBytes currently houses datasets from over 1,000 mice that can be reviewed, extracted and compared with other data collected from labs around the world. This large open-access database has enabled the development of new analytic tools allowing researchers to address questions that could not be answered using single datasets.

“Instead of dedicating lots of time and money to collect data from a test and do the analysis, researchers can go to MouseBytes first and extract these data,” said Sara Memar, BrainsCAN Neuroinformatics Specialist and Data Scientist. “They can get an idea of what’s going on in these data to better design their experimental research. It can accelerate the translation of research findings to clinical practice.”

With freely accessible data, the researchers hope MouseBytes will help find new insights into brain diseases and disorders including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia.

“Ninety per cent of the genes you have in the human brain, you also have in the mouse brain,” added Prado, who is also a scientist at Robarts Research Institute and the Brain and Mind Institute. “The hope is that by finding robust cognitive testing methods that can detect changes in the brain from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or other mouse models, we can learn what’s happening in humans.”