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illustration of mice in a swimming pool

A tale of two swimmers

April 2010

by Will Sansom

The swimming pool is a bit different than most. Located in a lab at the Health Science Center's Texas Research Park Campus, it is all of 3 feet square. The water, a milky white, obscures a white exit platform hidden below the surface. A warming lamp sits alongside, rather than towels, lounge chairs or umbrellas. Unlike other pools, the swimmers are in the water for no more than a minute.

This miniature pool, called a "water maze," helps scientists from the Department of Physiology and the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute of Longevity and Aging Studies to test the learning and memory of rodents and gain insights about Alzheimer's disease.

Veronica Galvan, Ph.D., assistant professor, describes the experiments: "We use non-toxic children's paint to make the water white. Around the pool we put different visual cues. We place the mice gently in the water and test how many seconds it takes them to find the platform and stand on it. When they do, we take them out and put them under the heating lamp. That is very nice for them. Then they are returned to their cages.

"The normal brothers and sisters learn like that. It is like a game. After the first four to five trials, they know that nothing is going to happen to them, they know where the platform is and they know the drill. On the other hand, with their brothers and sisters - that live in the same cage and were born from the same parents but carry the Alzheimer's mutations - every time you put them in the water is like you have put them there for the first time. They don't remember. Many float, which is a sign of helplessness."

The mice are tested a few seconds a day for five days, and the difference between the healthy mice and the gene-altered mice is always significant, Dr. Galvan says.

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