Novel objects alter immediate early gene expression globally for ZENK and regionally for c-Fos in neophobic and non-neophobic house sparrows
Neophobia - an animal's reluctance to approach novel objects, try new foods, or explore unfamiliar environments - affects whether animals can adapt to new environments and exploit novel resources. However, despite its importance, the neurobiological mechanisms underlying this personality trait are poorly understood. In this study, we examined regional brain activity using the expression of two immediate early genes (IEGs), ZENK and c-Fos, in response to novel objects or control conditions in captive house sparrows (Passer domesticus, n = 22). When exposed to novel objects, we predicted that we would see differential IEG activity in brain regions involved in regulating stress and emotion (hippocampus, medial ventral arcopallium, lateral septum), reward and learning (striatum), and executive function (NCL) between neophobic and non-neophobic individuals. To classify birds by phenotype, we used behavior trials that tested willingness to approach a food dish in the presence of several different novel objects, habituation to one novel object, and willingness to try several different novel foods. We then exposed birds to a new novel object or a control condition and assessed protein expression of two IEGs in neophobic vs non-neophobic individuals after this final exposure. An analysis of average sparrow feeding times in the presence of novel objects showed a bimodal distribution of neophobia behavior. There was also high repeatability of individual novel object responses, and average responses to all three trial types (novel object, novel food, and habituation to a novel object) were significantly correlated. Although we saw no differences between neophobic and non-neophobic birds in IEG expression in response to novel objects in any of the 6 brain regions examined, there was a significant global decrease in ZENK expression and a significant increase in c-Fos expression in the medial ventral arcopallium and the caudal hippocampus in response to novel objects compared to controls, suggesting that these two regions may be important in novelty detection and threat perception. Additionally, there was no object effect in the rostral hippocampus, which supports the hypothesis that the avian hippocampus may have a rostrocaudal functional gradient similar to the septotemporal gradient in mammals.