APOPO presents paper to Pavlovian Society

By Kate Webb | Behavioral Research Technician

Kate Webb attends annual meeting in Canada.

APOPO’s Kate Webb attended the annual Pavlovian Society meeting in Vancouver, Canada, on October 3-6. The society was named in honor of the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov. He was the first scientist to describe a form of learning called classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian conditioning). APOPO uses Pavlovian conditioning in HeroRAT training: young rats learn that the sound of a clicker precedes a tasty food reward (banana!).

Every year, this conference provides an opportunity for scientists to gather and share research on learning and memory. This was the second time APOPO attended the conference; in 2017, Dr. Cindy Fast (APOPO’s Head of Training and Innovation) was invited to talk at the Philadelphia meeting. Highlights of the 2019 meeting included Dr. John Freeman’s past-presidential lecture on category learning (learning how to group objects together based on shared attributes) in laboratory rats, and a riveting talk delivered by Dr. Sheena Josselyn about the neurobiology of fear learning and memory. Dr. Josselyn later spoke about her experiences as a leading lady in neuroscience at the Women in Learning satellite meeting.

"I presented a poster entitled: Training African giant pouched rats as biosensors: New humanitarian applications. This presentation described two recent proof-of-concept projects exploring novel scent detection applications for the HeroRATs, including their potential to sniff out illegally trafficked wildlife products and the zoonotic disease, Brucellosis. For wildlife detection, ten young rats were challenged to find pangolin (the world’s most widely smuggled mammal) and hardwood (threatened by illegal logging) hidden among items commonly used to mask their smell. APOPO began this study in 2016 with partner Endangered Wildlife Trust of South Africa," said Kate.

Ellie Cutright, a behavioral research technician at APOPO, and Raphael Mwampashi, a master’s student at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, collaborated on a project training rats to detect a genus of the brucella bacteria that causes brucellosis. Brucellosis can affect both humans and animals and is often spread when people eat contaminated food, including raw meat and unpasteurized milk. Historically, brucellosis has been neglected despite the diseases’ significant public health and economic consequences (World Health Organization). APOPO investigated if the rats could be trained to identify the unique smell of the disease causing bacteria.

APOPO's research shows the HeroRATs can readily learn to identify these new wildlife and disease targets, even when they occur in combination with other smelly substances! These proofs-of-concept lay the groundwork for developing detection rats as cost-efficient solutions to these global challenges and the results were well received by the Pavlovian Society members.


Photos © Jeff Wilson, Marshall Event Photography