Ontogeny of working memory and behavioural flexibility in the free movement pattern (FMP) Y-maze in zebrafish

Madeleine Cleal, Barbara D. Fontana, Courtney Hillman, Matthew O. Parker

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The acquisition of executive skills such as working memory, decision-making and adaptive responding occur at different stages of central nervous system development. Zebrafish (Danio rerio) are increasingly used in behavioural neuroscience for complex behavioural tasks, and there is a critical need to understand the ontogeny of their executive functions. Zebrafish across developmental stages (4, 7, 14, 30 and 90 days post fertilisation (dpf)), were assessed to track development of working memory (WM) and behavioural flexibility (BF) using the free movement pattern Y-maze (FMP Y-maze). Several differences in both WM and BF were identified during the transition from yolk-dependent to independent feeding. Specifically, WM is evident in all age groups, even from 4 dpf. However, BF is not developed until larvae start free feeding, and show significant improvement thereafter, with young adults (90 dpf) demonstrating the most well-defined BF. We demonstrate, for the first time, objective WM processes in 4 dpf zebrafish larvae. This suggests that those wishing to study WM in zebrafish may be able to do so from 4 dpf, thus drastically increasing throughput. In addition, we show that zebrafish follow distinct stages of cognitive development and age-related changes during the early developmental period. Finally, our findings indicate distinct WM and BF mechanisms, which may be useful to study for translational purposes.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104943
Number of pages7
JournalBehavioural Processes
Early online date9 Sept 2023
Publication statusPublished - 14 Sept 2023


  • behavioural flexibility
  • working memory
  • ontogeny
  • zebrafish
  • FMP Y-maze
  • UKRI
  • NC3Rs
  • NC/W00092X/1

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