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IISc’s novel lab lets monkeys play and work as scientists study | India News – Times of India

BENGALURU: Use of Macaque monkeys in cognitive studies is fairly common but a team of scientists from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) has found a novel way of training and studying them.
Pointing out that Macaque monkeys are widely used in cognitive studies because they are highly intelligent social creatures with many similarities to humans, the scientists said such monkeys are usually brought into specialised labs and constrained to obtain brain recordings and track eye movements while they perform complex cognitive tasks.
SP Arun, associate professor, Centre for Neuroscience, says: “…The existing approach prevents studying vision in more natural settings and also natural and social behaviours. We, therefore, decided to turn this on its head by bringing a specialised lab into the monkey’s home.”
In their new lab, monkeys move freely in a large natural space — with trees and play area — and also access a touchscreen workstation where they can be trained to perform complex tasks. This is designed to provide a unique environment where scientists can also study novel social interactions while the monkeys are learning, which is currently not possible with traditional methods. Their study has been published in the journal “elife”.
“The setup consists, among other things, of a naturalistic group housing chamber and a behaviour room where monkeys could perform tasks on a touchscreen workstation. The monkeys were trained to voluntarily position their heads on a chinrest to learn and perform complex cognitive tasks,” the IISc said.
Science and learning
Aside from just building a nice animal-friendly naturalistic lab, Arun and team also solved some major technical challenges. “First, we had to design a touchscreen workstation where monkeys can perform complex tasks in return for a juice reward. The second challenge was getting an accurate gaze. We saw that monkeys bring their head to the same position each time to drink juice. So we developed modular head/chin supports to stabilise their head. This and our custom eye tracker setup gave us great gaze signals,” Arun explains.
To understand what was possible, they trained the monkeys to perform a “same-different task” — to decide whether two things are the same or not.
“We trained monkeys to do such a task and obtained remarkable gaze tracking despite the fact that monkeys are basically unrestrained and freely engaging with the touchscreen or moving away at their own will,” Arun added.
The untrained monkey
Reiterating that it could take several months to make monkeys learn such complex cognitive tasks, Arun said the team decided to check if untrained monkeys could learn from those they had trained.
“As proof of novel exciting behaviours that could be observed in this facility, we let an untrained monkey (M2) into the behaviour room with trained monkeys (M1 & M3) as we thought we could take advantage of our setup to let naïve animals observe trained animals doing the task and see if they’ll learn it on their own? This worked great,” Arun said.
Arun said that M2 learned the task by observing M1 and M3. “…By Day 5, M2 had learned the basic task structure. By Day 9, M2 was performing at chance. By Day 21, M2 had learned the same-different rule. We also tried training another naïve monkey (M4) to learn by watching trained monkeys. All this shows that our lab can reveal novel social behaviours that would not have been observed in the traditional setup,” he added.

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