Research Article: Effect of Circadian Phase on Memory Acquisition and Recall: Operant Conditioning vs. Classical Conditioning

Date Published: March 22, 2013

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Madeleine V. Garren, Stephen B. Sexauer, Terry L. Page, Troy Zars.


There have been several studies on the role of circadian clocks in the regulation of associative learning and memory processes in both vertebrate and invertebrate species. The results have been quite variable and at present it is unclear to what extent the variability observed reflects species differences or differences in methodology. Previous results have shown that following differential classical conditioning in the cockroach, Rhyparobia maderae, in an olfactory discrimination task, formation of the short-term and long-term memory is under strict circadian control. In contrast, there appeared to be no circadian regulation of the ability to recall established memories. In the present study, we show that following operant conditioning of the same species in a very similar olfactory discrimination task, there is no impact of the circadian system on either short-term or long-term memory formation. On the other hand, ability to recall established memories is strongly tied to the circadian phase of training. On the basis of these data and those previously reported for phylogenetically diverse species, it is suggested that there may be fundamental differences in the way the circadian system regulates learning and memory in classical and operant conditioning.

Partial Text

In the past decade, several studies have indicated that circadian clocks may have varied effects on learning and memory. In some cases, the ability to form a memory may be independent of circadian phase, but phase may function as a contextual cue (time-stamping) such that recall and performance are better at 24-hour intervals following learning as demonstrated in hamsters [1] and rats [2]–[4]. In other cases, recall appears to be largely independent of the phase of testing, but memory acquisition or consolidation may depend on the circadian phase of training as shown in mollusks [5], [6], insects [7]–[9], fish [10], and mice [11], [12].

In classical (Pavlovian) conditioning animals learn about the relationship between two stimuli, while in operant (instrumental) conditioning it is the relationship between stimuli and the consequences of the animal’s own behavior that is critical. While the two forms of associative learning are operationally distinct, the basic question of how these different forms of learning are related and whether or not they involve the same or fundamentally different underlying processes is still uncertain [21]. While the analysis of classical conditioning has proceeded rapidly, there is much less information available on mechanisms of operant conditioning. However, recent data do suggest that while there are similarities, significant differences exist at the cellular/molecular level [22]–[24]. The extent to which these differences in mechanism may be reflected in differences in circadian regulation is unclear. With regard to the role of the circadian system in learning and memory, studies have addressed questions of memory acquisition (short-term memory); memory consolidation (long-term memory) and long-term memory recall utilizing both classical and operant conditioning. The outcomes of these studies have been varied.