If you want to study a mouse's natural behaviour, then perhaps it isn't best to grab the animal and place it in a setting where it's required to perform a certain task at a certain time. That's the thinking behind Autonomouse, a cage that's designed to make life easier for lab mice, and to produce more accurate results in behavioural studies.

Developed by a team at Britain's Francis Crick Institute, Autonomouse houses multiple mice living in a social group, who are supplied with running wheels, ladders, and unlimited access to food and water. The system can reportedly run for up to 18 months with only minimal human intervention, although there's no word on how waste-removal is handled.

All of the mice have uniquely-coded RFID chips inserted under their skin. These are detected by a reader device, that's able to ascertain factors such as each animal's current weight, its activity level, and how much water it's drinking.

Additionally, the chips are used to detect when an individual mouse enters a special "training room." When this happens, the door to that room is closed behind the mouse, temporarily keeping other mice from entering. The animal is then left to perform a given learning task, which the room is set up for, and which is the object of the study. Behavioural data is automatically recorded, and linked to that specific mouse.

"Working with an unstressed, group-housed cohort of mice that train themselves at the time of day that suits them, without the intervention of researchers over long periods of time, makes our experiments better and more efficient," says study leader Dr. Andreas Schaefer.

An open-access paper on the research – which includes plans for the Autonomouse system, which other institutes are welcome to use – was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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