Plastic changes in brain morphology in relation to learning and environmental enrichment in the guppy (Poecilia reticulata) [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Stephanie Fong, Severine D. Buechel, Annika Boussard, Alexander Kotrschal, and Niclas Kolm

Despite the common assumption that the brain is mainly malleable to surrounding conditions during ontogeny, plastic neural changes can occur also in adulthood. One of the driving forces responsible for alterations in brain morphology is increasing environmental complexity that may demand for enhanced cognitive abilities (e.g. attention, memory and learning). However, studies looking at the relationship between brain morphology and learning are scarce. Here, we tested the effects of both learning and environmental enrichment on neural plasticity in guppies (Poecilia reticulata), by means of either a reversal-learning test or a spatial-learning test. Given considerable evidence supporting environmentally-induced plastic alterations, two separate control groups that were not subjected to any cognitive test were included to account for potential changes induced by the experimental setup alone. We did not find any effect of learning on any of our brain measurements. However, we found strong evidence for an environmental effect, where fish given access to the spatial-learning environment had larger relative brain size and optic tectum size in relation to those exposed to the reversal-learning environment. Our results demonstrate the plasticity of the adult brain to respond adaptively mainly to environmental conditions, providing support for the environmental enhancement theory.

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