Event: 341

Key Event Title


Impairment, Learning and memory

Short name


Impairment, Learning and memory

Biological Context


Level of Biological Organization

Key Event Components


Process Object Action
learning decreased
memory decreased

Key Event Overview

AOPs Including This Key Event




Taxonomic Applicability


Term Scientific Term Evidence Link
human Homo sapiens High NCBI
rat Rattus norvegicus High NCBI
fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster High NCBI
zebrafish Danio rerio High NCBI
gastropods Physa heterostropha High NCBI

Life Stages


Life stage Evidence
During brain development High

Sex Applicability


Term Evidence
Mixed High

Key Event Description


Learning can be defined as the process by which new information is acquired to establish knowledge by systematic study or by trial and error (Ono, 2009). Two types of learning are considered in neurobehavioral studies: a) associative learning and b) non-associative learning. Associative learning is based on making associations between different events. In associative learning, a subject learns the relationship among two different stimuli or between the stimulus and the subject’s behaviour. On the other hand, non-associative learning can be defined as an alteration in the behavioural response that occurs over time in response to a single type of stimulus. Habituation and sensitization are some examples of non-associative learning.

The memory formation requires acquisition, retention and retrieval of information in the brain, which is characterised by the non-conscious recall of information (Ono, 2009). There are three main categories of memory, including sensory memory, short-term or working memory (up to a few hours) and long-term memory (up to several days or even much longer).

Learning and memory depend upon the coordinated action of different brain regions and neurotransmitter systems constituting functionally integrated neural networks (D’Hooge and DeDeyn, 2001). Among the many brain areas engaged in the acquisition of, or retrieval of, a learned event, the hippocampal-based memory systems have received the most study. For example, the hippocampus has been shown to be critical for spatial-temporal memory, visio-spatial memory, verbal and narrative memory, and episodic and autobiographical memory (Burgess et al., 2000; Vorhees and Williams, 2014). However, there is substantial evidence that fundamental learning and memory functions are not mediated by the hippocampus alone but require a network that includes, in addition to the hippocampus, anterior thalamic nuclei, mammillary bodies cortex, cerebellum and basal ganglia (Aggleton and Brown, 1999; Doya, 2000; Mitchell et al., 2002, Toscano and Guilarte, 2005; Gilbert et al., 2006, 2016). Thus, damage to variety of brain structures can potentially lead to impairment of learning and memory. The main learning areas and pathways are similar in rodents and primates, including man (Eichenbaum, 2000; Stanton and Spear, 1990).

For the purposes of this KE (AO), impaired learning and memory is defined as an organism’s inability to establish new associative or non-associative relationships, or sensory, short-term or long-term memories which can be measured using different behavioural tests described below.

How It Is Measured or Detected


In laboratory animals: in rodents, a variety of tests of learning and memory have been used to probe the integrity of hippocampal function. These include tests of spatial learning like the radial arm maze (RAM), the Barnes maze, passive avoidance and Spontaneous alternation and most commonly, the Morris water maze (MWM). Test of novelty such as novel object recognition, and fear based context learning are also sensitive to hippocampal disruption. Finally, trace fear conditioning which incorporates a temporal component upon traditional amygdala-based fear learning engages the hippocampus. A brief description of these tasks follows.

1) RAM, Barnes, MWM are examples of spatial tasks, animals are required to learn the location of a food reward (RAM); an escape hole to enter a preferred dark tunnel from a brightly lit open field area (Barnes maze), or a hidden platform submerged below the surface of the water in a large tank of water (MWM) (Vorhees and Williams, 2014).

2) Novel Object recognition. This is a simpler task that can be used to probe recognition memory. Two objects are presented to animal in an open field on trial 1, and these are explored. On trial 2, one object is replaced with a novel object and time spent interacting with the novel object is taken evidence of memory retention – I have seen one of these objects before, but not this one (Cohen and Stackman, 2015).

3) Contextual Fear conditioning is a hippocampal based learning task in which animals are placed in a novel environment and allowed to explore for several minutes before delivery of an aversive stimulus, typically a mild foot shock. Upon reintroduction to this same environment in the future (typically 24-48 hours after original training), animals will limit their exploration, the context of this chamber being associated with an aversive event. The degree of suppression of activity after training is taken as evidence of retention, i.e., memory (Curzon et al., 2009).

4) Trace fear conditioning. Standard fear conditioning paradigms require animals to make an association between a neutral conditioning stimulus (CS, a light or a tone) and an aversive stimulus (US, a footshock). The unconditioned response (CR) that is elicited upon delivery of the footshock US is freezing behavior. With repetition of CS/US delivery, the previously neutral stimulus comes to elicit the freezing response. This type of learning is dependent on the amygdala, a brain region associated with, but distinct from the hippocampus. Introducing a brief delay between presentation of the neutral CS and the aversive US, a trace period, requires the engagement of the amygdala and the hippocampus (Shors et al., 2004).

In humans:  A variety of standardized learning and memory tests have been developed for human neuropsychological testing, including children (Rohlman et al., 2008). These include episodic autobiographical memory, perceptual motor tests, short and  long term memory tests, working memory tasks, word pair recognition memory; object location recognition memory. Some have been incorporated in general tests of intelligence (IQ) such as the WAIS and the Wechsler. Modifications have been made and norms developed for incorporating of tests of learning and memory in children. Examples of some of these tests include:

1) Rey Osterieth Complex Figure (RCFT) which probes a variety of functions including as visuospatial abilities, memory, attention, planning, and working memory (Shin et al., 2006).

2) Children’s Auditory Verbal Learning Test (CAVLT) is a free recall of presented word lists that yields measures of Immediate Memory Span, Level of Learning, Immediate Recall, Delayed Recall, Recognition Accuracy, and Total Intrusions. (Lezak 1994; Talley, 1986).

3) Continuous Visual Memory Test (CVMT) measures visual learning and memory. It is a free recall of presented pictures/objects rather than words but that yields similar measures of Immediate Memory Span, Level of Learning, Immediate Recall, Delayed Recall, Recognition Accuracy, and Total Intrusions. (Lezak, 1984; 1994).

4) Story Recall from Wechsler Memory Scale (WMS) Logical Memory Test Battery, a standardized neurospychological test designed to measure memory functions (Lezak, 1994; Talley, 1986).

5) Autobiographical memory (AM) is the recollection of specific personal events in a multifaceted higher order cognitive process. It includes episodic memory- remembering of past events specific in time and place, in contrast to semantic autobiographical memory is the recollection of personal facts, traits, and general knowledge. Episodic AM is associated with greater activation of the hippocampus and a later and more gradual developmental trajectory. Absence of episodic memory in early life (infantile amnesia) is thought to reflect immature hippocampal function (Herold et al., 2015; Fivush, 2011).

6) Staged Autobiographical Memory Task. In this version of the AM test, children participate in a staged event involving a tour of the hospital, perform a series of tasks (counting footprints in the hall, identifying objects in wall display, buy lunch, watched a video). It is designed to contain unique event happenings, place, time, visual/sensory/perceptual details. Four to five months later, interviews are conducted using Children’s Autobiographical Interview and scored according to standardized scheme (Willoughby et al., 2014).

Domain of Applicability


Basic forms of learning behavior such as habituation have been found in many taxa from worms to humans (Alexander, 1990). More complex cognitive processes such as executive function likely reside only in higher mammalian species such as non-human primates and humans. Recently, larval zebrafish has also been suggested as a model for the study of learning and memory (Roberts et al., 2013).

Regulatory Significance of the Adverse Outcome


A prime example of impairments in learning and memory as the adverse outcome for regulatory action is developmental lead exposure and IQ function in children (Bellinger, 2012). Most methods are well established in the published literature and many have been engaged to evaluate the effects of developmental thyroid disruption. The US EPA and OECD Developmental Neurotoxicity (DNT) Guidelines (OCSPP 870.6300 or OECD 426) both require testing of learning and memory (USEPA, 1998; OECD, 2007) advising to use the following tests passive avoidance, delayed-matching-to-position for the adult rat and for the infant rat, olfactory conditioning, Morris water maze, Biel or Cincinnati maze, radial arm maze, T-maze, and acquisition and retention of schedule-controlled behaviour.  These DNT Guidelines have been deemed valid to identify developmental neurotoxicity and adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes (Makris et al., 2009).

Also in the frame of the OECD GD 43 (2008) on reproductive toxicity, learning and memory testing may have potential to be applied in the context of developmental neurotoxicity studies. However, many of the learning and memory tasks used in guideline studies may not readily detect subtle impairments in cognitive function associated with modest degrees of developmental thyroid disruption (Gilbert et al., 2012).



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