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In the realm of cognitive research involving rodents, the Attentional Set-Shifting Apparatus is a powerful tool. This maze-like apparatus allows researchers to assess cognitive flexibility, attentional shifting, and executive functions in rodents, offering valuable insights into their cognitive abilities. In this comprehensive guide, we will walk you through every aspect of using the Attentional Set-Shifting Apparatus, from maze dimensions to data interpretation. Whether you’re new to this apparatus or seeking to refine your techniques, this guide is your key to success.

Maze Dimensions and Materials

The maze, a rectangular box with dimensions of approximately 40 cm x 60 cm x 15 cm (width x length x height), serves as the stage for assessing cognitive flexibility in rodents.

Materials Required:

  1. Attentional Set-Shifting Apparatus maze
  2. Rodents (experimental subjects)
  3. Food rewards (e.g., food pellets)
  4. Data recording tools
  5. Ethanol solution for cleaning between trials

Preparing for the Attentional Set-Shifting Apparatus Experiment

To ensure reliable results, we emphasize the importance of acclimating the rodents to the testing environment.

  • Allow experimental subjects at least 30 minutes of acclimation time
  • Handling them gently to help reduce stress and ensure they are comfortable in the testing room.
  • Maintaining a controlled maze environment, including consistent lighting and temperature, as well as minimizing distractions.

Behavioral Parameters Measured with the Attentional Set-Shifting Apparatus

  1. Latency to Complete the Task: The time taken by a rodent to successfully complete a set-shifting task within the maze. Longer latencies may indicate slower cognitive flexibility and difficulty in adapting to rule changes.
  2. Errors Made During the Task: The number of incorrect choices or responses made by the rodent while navigating the maze. Increased errors suggest challenges in shifting attention, rule learning, or maintaining cognitive flexibility.
  3. Trials Required to Achieve Criterion Performance: The number of trials or attempts needed for the rodent to meet a predetermined performance criterion. A higher number of trials may indicate difficulties in adapting to new rules or concepts.
  4. Reaction Time to Rule Shifts: The time it takes for the rodent to adjust its behavior and adapt to a rule change within the task. Prolonged reaction times may indicate slower cognitive flexibility or difficulty in processing new information.
  5. Strategy Shifts: The frequency with which a rodent shifts its strategy or approach during the task. Frequent strategy shifts may suggest adaptability in response to changing task demands.
  6. Correct Response Rate: The proportion of correct responses made by the rodent during the task. A high correct response rate indicates successful rule learning and cognitive flexibility.
  7. Error Types: Categorization of errors made by the rodent, such as perseverative errors (repeatedly following a previous rule) or regressive errors (reverting to a previously learned rule). Analyzing error types provides insights into the specific cognitive processes involved in the task.
  8. Learning Curves: Graphical representations of how the rodent’s performance changes over successive trials. Learning curves help visualize the rate of adaptation and rule learning, providing insights into cognitive flexibility.
  9. Discrimination Ability: The rodent’s ability to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant cues or stimuli within the task. Impaired discrimination ability may indicate difficulties in attentional shifting and cognitive flexibility.
  10. Exploration Behavior: Patterns of exploration, such as the number of arm entries or choices made within the maze. Exploration behavior can provide context for understanding how rodents approach and adapt to the task.
  11. Rule Learning and Switching: Assessing how well rodents learn and switch between different rules or task requirements. The ability to learn and switch rules demonstrates cognitive flexibility and adaptability.

You can use these parameters to evaluate cognitive flexibility, attentional shifting, and executive functions in rodents, contributing to a deeper understanding of their cognitive abilities and potential implications for neurological research.

Protocol for the Attentional Set-Shifting Apparatus Experiment

The Attentional Set-Shifting Apparatus is a valuable tool for assessing cognitive flexibility and executive functions in rodents. Here’s a step-by-step protocol for conducting the experiment:


  • Ensure that the maze apparatus is set up correctly with appropriate dimensions (approximately 40 cm x 60 cm x 15 cm).
  • Place the apparatus in a controlled testing room with consistent lighting and temperature.
  • Set up data recording equipment to accurately capture the rodent’s performance during the task.


  • Select rodents (typically rats or mice) as your experimental subjects.
  • Ensure that rodents are acclimated to the testing room for at least 30 minutes before the experiment to reduce stress.

Food Rewards:

  • Prepare food rewards (e.g., food pellets) that will serve as incentives for the rodents during the task.

Task Procedure:

  • Begin the experiment with a simple discrimination task (e.g., digging for a food reward in a specific well).
  • Once the rodent consistently performs the task correctly, introduce a rule shift by changing the discrimination criteria (e.g., switch from digging in one well to another).
  • Continue introducing rule shifts to assess the rodent’s ability to adapt to changing task demands and cognitive flexibility.

Monitor and record the following behavioral parameters:

  1. Latency to complete the task
  2. Errors made during the task
  3. The number of trials required to achieve criterion performance
  4. Reaction time to rule shifts
  5. Strategy shifts
  6. Correct response rate
  7. Error types (e.g., perseverative errors, regressive errors)
  8. Learning curves depicting performance over successive trials
  9. Discrimination ability
  10. Exploration behavior
  11. Rule learning and switching

How to Adjust Rule Complexity to Assess Learning and Switching Behaviors

Adjusting rule complexity and gradually increasing the complexity of rules and tasks in rodent experiments, such as those using the Attentional Set-Shifting Apparatus, is crucial to challenge cognitive flexibility. Standardized methods for achieving this include:

Simple to Complex Discrimination:

  • Start with simple discrimination tasks that require rodents to distinguish between two easily distinguishable cues (e.g., black vs. white).
  • Gradually increase complexity by introducing more similar cues, making discrimination more challenging (e.g., shades of gray).

Dimensional Shifts:

  • After rodents successfully complete a task based on one dimension (e.g., color), shift to a new dimension (e.g., shape) that requires a different rule for success.
  • Increase complexity further by introducing multiple dimensions and requiring rodents to switch between them (e.g., color, shape, texture).

Rule Reversals:

  • Once a rodent has mastered a specific rule (e.g., selecting a specific stimulus for a reward), reverse the rule so that the previously correct choice becomes incorrect.
  • Gradually introduce rule reversals to assess the rodent’s ability to adapt to changing contingencies.

Intradimensional and Extradimensional Shifts:

  • Employ intradimensional shifts where the relevant dimension within the same category (e.g., color) changes, but the rule remains the same (e.g., from red to blue).
  • Implement extradimensional shifts where the relevant dimension changes to a different category (e.g., from color to shape) along with a rule change.

Compound Discriminations:

  • Combine two or more cues or dimensions to create compound discriminations that require rodents to integrate multiple sources of information to make correct choices.

Increasing Stimulus Sets:

  • Increase the number of stimuli or cues presented to the rodents. Larger stimulus sets require more comprehensive discrimination and memory.

Attentional Set-Shifting:

  • Incorporate attentional set-shifting tasks where rodents must learn to shift their attention between different aspects of stimuli (e.g., color to location).
  • Gradually increase the complexity by introducing more attentional shifts within a single task.

Novelty and Complexity in Maze Design:

  • Modify the maze’s physical design to introduce novel elements or complex spatial arrangements.
  • Alter the spatial cues, landmarks, or geometric features within the maze to challenge spatial cognitive abilities.

Progressive Learning Stages:

  • Implement a stepwise approach, progressing from simple to complex tasks over several sessions or days.
  • Gradually introduce new elements and challenges as the rodent’s performance improves.

Increasing Memory Demands:

  • Extend the delay between the presentation of stimuli and the response requirement, requiring rodents to maintain information in working memory for longer durations.

Contact our team if you need assistance with data interpretation or our preclinical contract research services.


  1. Bondi, C. O., Cheng, J. P., Tennant, H. M., Monaco, C. M., & Kline, A. E. (2014). Old dog, new tricks: the attentional set-shifting test as a novel cognitive behavioral task after controlled cortical impact injuryJournal of neurotrauma31(10), 926–937. doi:10.1089/neu.2013.3295.
  2. Chess, A. C., Raymond, B. E., Gardner-Morse, I. G., Stefani, M. R., & Green, J. T. (2011). Set shifting in a rodent model of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorderBehavioral neuroscience125(3), 372–382. doi:10.1037/a0023571.
  3. Stefani MR, Groth K, Moghaddam, B. Glutamate receptors in the rat medial prefrontal cortex regulate set-shifting ability. Behav Neurosci. 2003 Aug; 117(4):728-37. DOI: 10.1037/0735-7044.117.4.728.

Additional information

Weight 50 lbs
Dimensions 26 × 6 × 26 in

Mouse, Rat




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