The Free-movement pattern Y-maze: A cross-species measure of working memory and executive function

Madeleine Cleal*, Barbara D. Fontana, Daniel C. Ranson, Sebastian D. McBride, Jerome D. Swinny, Edward S. Redhead, Matthew O. Parker

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Numerous neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders are associated with deficits in executive functions such as working memory and cognitive flexibility. Progress in developing effective treatments for disorders may benefit from targeting these cognitive impairments, the success of which is predicated on the development of animal models with validated behavioural assays. Zebrafish offer a promising model for studying complex brain disorders, but tasks assessing executive function are lacking. The Free-movement pattern (FMP) Y-maze combines aspects of the common Y-maze assay, which exploits the inherent motivation of an organism to explore an unknown environment, with analysis based on a series of sequential two-choice discriminations. We validate the task as a measure of working memory and executive function by comparing task performance parameters in adult zebrafish treated with a range of glutamatergic, cholinergic and dopaminergic drugs known to impair working memory and cognitive flexibility. We demonstrate the cross-species validity of the task by assessing performance parameters in adapted versions of the task for mice and Drosophila, and finally a virtual version in humans, and identify remarkable commonalities between vertebrate species’ navigation of the maze. Together, our results demonstrate that the FMP Y-maze is a sensitive assay for assessing working memory and cognitive flexibility across species from invertebrates to humans, providing a simple and widely applicable behavioural assay with exceptional translational relevance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)536-557
Number of pages22
JournalBehavior Research Methods
Issue number2
Early online date03 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - 01 Apr 2021


  • Drosophila
  • Executive function
  • FMP Y-maze
  • Translational research
  • Working memory
  • Zebrafish
  • Brain
  • Animals
  • Maze Learning
  • Motivation
  • Mice
  • Memory, Short-Term
  • Executive Function


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