Eye understand: physiological measures as novel predictors of adaptive learning in horses.

Evans, Louise, Cameron-Whytock, Heather orcid iconORCID: 0000-0003-0760-2584 and Ijichi, Carrie (2024) Eye understand: physiological measures as novel predictors of adaptive learning in horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 271 . ISSN 0168-1591

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Official URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2023.106152


Striatal dopamine is a neurotransmitter that marks reward and mediates reward learning. Spontaneous Eye Blink Rate (SEBR) reflects striatal dopamine activity and could offer a novel, proxy measure of learning performance. Additionally, arousal affects performance in a range of cognitive tasks, but there is less evidence for the relationship between baseline arousal and learning. This study investigated whether SEBR predicts learning performance in an equine model. Further, it investigated novel physiological predictors of learning performance (eye temperature and heart rate variability). Nineteen horses completed a two-choice discrimination reversal learning (RL) task. Performance was measured using a Performance Index. SEBR and Heart Rate Variability (HRV) were measured at rest (home stable) and during RL. Infrared Thermography of eye temperature (IRT) was measured immediately before and after RL. SEBR did not change in response to RL despite being thought to reflect striatal dopamine activity. HRV was higher during RL than at rest though was not statistically significant (p=0.06). Additionally, eye temperature decreased significantly during trials (left eye: p=0.002; right eye: p=0.05). These results indicate lower arousal in response to training, possibly similar to a ‘flow state’ in humans. Results of a negative binomial GLM revealed that SEBR was not associated with performance, however, positive predictors of learning performance included resting HRV (p=0.009), HRV during the task (p=0.002), and left eye temperature change (p<0.0001). The association between left eye temperature and learning performance is consistent with lateralised blood flow to the left-brain hemisphere (responsible for learning targeted responses) and thought to be the first observation of this phenomenon during learning. Lower arousal may facilitate left-hemisphere dominance, creating the cognitive space to respond adaptively in RL. Left hemispheric dominance controls parasympathetic activity, potentially explaining the interactions observed here. Results suggest arousal both in the home and training environment may have important impacts on learning.

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