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Advancing Schizophrenia Research with Ugo Basile's Automated OPERON System

Three cute white mice

Ugo Basile's Contribution to Schizophrenia Research

A significant contribution to schizophrenia research comes from Ugo Basile innovative OPERON device, a valuable tool for studying executive functions in preclinical models of schizophrenia.

The OPERON Dual Chamber is a fully automated system to run the Wisconsin test on mice. Before OPERON this was not possible and the tests were completely manual with bad impact on throughput, bias and mistakes, given the complexity of the task. 

The OPERON behavioral tests for Attentional Set-shifting evaluation, delivering a substantial translational power.

49500 Operon Full System

Attentional set shifting is a measure of cognitive flexibility and executive functions widely assessed in humans by the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST) and the CANTAB Intra-/Extra-Dimensional set-shifting task (ID/ED)

Ugo Basile made commercially available a fully automated version of the ID/ED task. This automated task allows one to study the ability of mice to shift attention through different rules, using two or three different dimensions (i.e. lights, odours, and textures). The Scarsi et al. paper “Automated Two-chamber Operon ID/ED Task for Mice” (2020Current Protocols) provides a detailed step-by-step protocol for preparing and testing mice that includes all procedures required for this upgraded attentional set-shifting paradigm. All OPERON systems are provided with customizable procedures for 2 or 3 dimensional tests using a dedicated version of the highly cited ANY-maze software. Tools for adapting protocols to the different experimental needs are also included and easy to tweak in a graphical way with no coding needed.

In the recent 2023 paper "Automation at the service of the study of executive functions in preclinical models” published in Scientific Reports, a detailed examination of how the OPERON automated system is revolutionizing research of Attentional Set-Shifting and, more in general, Brain Executive Functions. Synergic work of medical doctor and biologists and psychologists in testing Attentional Set-Shifting is crucial for understanding cognitive impairments in psychiatric disorders such as Schizophrenia, giving a great example of Highly Translational Animal Research.

The above-mentioned paper tested the validity of Ugo Basile OPERON, determining first of all if manually collected and automated results where comparable, and they were. 

In addition to this, a number of considerations were drawn about the advantages and disadvantages of using a fully automated method through the OPERON:

  • Lower level of operator training

  • Higher degree of standardization

  • Protection from operator mistakes (e.g. common inversion of rewarded stimuli)

  • Elimination of experimenter-driven variability and bias 

The paper also highlights several key applications of the OPERON system in the study of executive functions relevant to schizophrenia, including:

  1. Impulsivity and attentional processes are studied thanks to the automated nature of the OPERON, allowing for precise control over stimul presentation and response measurement

  2. Reversal Learning Tasks measure cognitive flexibility by requiring animals to adapt to changing reinforcement contingencies or, in other terms, task rule changes. The OPERON's ability to automate these tasks ensures that researchers can systematically investigate how schizophrenia affects the ability to adjust to new rules across changing stilmuli and environments/dimensions.

In summary, the automation provided by the OPERON offers several significant advantages for schizophrenia research in rodents (mice):

  • Enhanced Accuracy: by minimizing human intervention, the OPERON reduces the risk of errors, increases the precision of behavioral measurements and optimizes experiment reliability. This is particularly important for detecting subtle cognitive deficits that may be indicative of schizophrenia and for avoiding time-consuming re-testing due to errors in stimuli delivery.

  • Increased Throughput: the ability to run a number of increasingly complex tasks and continuously collect data, accelerates the research process by maximizing the ability of animals to perform subsequent tasks. This high-throughput capability is essential for large-scale studies and drug screening.

  • Reproducibility: Automated systems ensure that experimental conditions are standardized across trials and subjects, enhancing the reproducibility of results. This is critical for validating findings and translating them into clinical considerations.

The high throughput and high-quality data generated by the OPERON can inform the development of new therapeutic interventions aimed at improving cognitive outcomes for individuals with schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders.

In conclusion, Ugo Basile's OPERON system exemplifies how automation can enhance the precision, efficiency, and reproducibility of preclinical research. As the scientific community continues to explore the complexities of schizophrenia, tools like the OPERON will play a pivotal role in advancing our knowledge and developing effective treatments.

For more detailed information, you can read the full paper "Automation at the service of the study of executive functions in preclinical models"

For more details on OPERON:


What is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder affecting approximately 24 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It typically manifests in late adolescence or early adulthood and can significantly impact a person's life. The symptoms of schizophrenia are generally classified into three categories: positive, negative, and cognitive.

  • Positive Symptoms: These include hallucinations (often auditory), delusions, and disorganized thinking. Positive symptoms add behaviors or perceptions that are not present in reality.

  • Negative Symptoms: These encompass a reduction in emotional expression, lack of motivation, and social withdrawal. Negative symptoms represent a loss of functionality that was previously present.

  • Cognitive Symptoms: These involve problems with memory, attention, and planning. Cognitive deficits can be the most debilitating, as they interfere with the ability to carry out everyday tasks and work activities.

Schizophrenia is associated with significant disability and can affect many areas of a person's life, including personal, family, social, educational, and occupational functioning. The WHO also notes that individuals with schizophrenia are 2-3 times more likely to die early than the general population, often due to physical illnesses such as cardiovascular, metabolic, and infectious diseases.

More info on Schizophrenia on World Health Organization website:

The Impact of Schizophrenia on Society

Schizophrenia not only affects individuals but also has a significant impact on society. People with schizophrenia often face difficulties in maintaining social relationships, obtaining and keeping a job, and taking care of themselves. This can lead to social isolation and an increased risk of poverty and homelessness. Moreover, schizophrenia is often associated with a higher incidence of other medical conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, which can reduce life expectancy.

Economically, schizophrenia represents a substantial burden on healthcare and social systems. Direct costs include expenses for medical and psychiatric treatments, while indirect costs arise from lost productivity and the need for continuous care. The societal stigma associated with schizophrenia further exacerbates these challenges, as it often leads to discrimination and marginalization of those affected.

The State of Scientific Research on Schizophrenia

Research on schizophrenia is continually evolving, with significant progress in understanding the biological underpinnings of the disorder. In recent years, genetic studies have identified numerous genes associated with schizophrenia, suggesting a strong hereditary component. Additionally, neuroimaging research has revealed structural and functional alterations in the brains of individuals with schizophrenia.

Despite these advances, schizophrenia remains a challenging condition to treat. Antipsychotic medications, developed over the past decades, can be effective in reducing positive symptoms but often have significant side effects and are less effective against negative and cognitive symptoms. Therefore, research continues to focus on developing new treatments and therapeutic interventions.

Main References

WHO Schizophrenia Fact Sheet -

Ugo Basile OPERON Dual Chamber Cage -

Recent Paper on OPERON: "Automation at the service of the study of executive functions in preclinical models" -