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Manual Versus Automated Animal Mazes

By February 22, 2023March 6th, 2023No Comments


The American psychologist Dr. Watson shocked the scientific community when he postulated that “the rodents find their way in the environment with the help of a learned motor response, (later called motor kinetics) they do not need any of their sense to do so”.[1]

With this discovery, scientists began studying the brain functions in animals via their behavioral patterns.[1] Since then, many types of mazes have been developed to study the behavior of animals in the field of neuroscience.

Mazes are the perfect tool to analyze and study the psychological states of rodents, such as anxiety spatial navigation, memory, and learning.[1] The mazes we know today have grown in versatility and complexity over the years. 

In this article, we will dive more into the emergence of automated mazes, the difference between manual and automated mazes, and how to choose the right one for your experimental workflows.

History of Manual Mazes In Research

The anima research maze was invented in 1890 in the lab of Dr. Edmund Sanford at Clark University.[2] Though rodents were extensively used in lab experiments at that period of time, their psychology required greater study. This is what attracted the attention of one of the students of Dr. Edmund, Linus Kline.[2]

More significant work followed soon after in the field of rodent experimental mazes:

  • Linus Kline earlier studied various other animal models, such as tadpoles and chicks, for his studies but eventually, he shifted to rodents for a better understanding of the behavioral patterns of these organisms.[2] Though, the apparatus involved in the study was more of a puzzle than the mazes, which intended to study moves like digging and gnawing.[2]

Sketches of Linus Kline’s mazes [2]

The maze we know today came from the combined study of Kline and Willard Small. Small wasn’t interested in the food-seeking behavior of rats, but rather in their learning processes.[2]  He constructed a maze in which reading the food/reward meant learning the solution to the created puzzle. His studies were mostly comparative and observational and concluded that the rat’s different senses contributed to solving the maze.[2] 

A maze created by Willard Small.[2

Dr. Walter Hunter studied mazes extensively in the 20th century. He published his manuscript on the topic in the 1920s, answering crucial questions about how sensory processes factored into maze-solving.[2]  In this study, Hunter restricted a food reward to prevent olfactory interference. Though his maze was difficult for some rats to solve, others solved it easily, demonstrating that it was possible to construct mazes that forced higher mental processes than sensory associations.[2] 

To explain complex cognitive processes, scientists began using computational modelling in the mid-1900s.[2]  Dr. Claude Shannon developed a mechanical mouse named “Theseus”, named after the Greek Myth. Theseus was capable of learning any combination of moves to solve a maze. In his system, he used switching relays similar to those in old dial telephones. Unlike Hebb-Williams’ maze, Theseus’ maze had inner walls that could be moved and rearranged.[2]

Traces of Theseus Exploring the Minotaur’s Maze [2] 

To better understand the technology of old telephones and make them more efficient, Shannon developed “Theseus”. Today, neuroscientists are using these mazes to study how real animals process information.

The Emergence Of Automated Mazes

Mazes are fundamental to studying the behavioral patterns and system neuroscience of rodents. Despite the widespread availability of tried-and-true mazes, scientists still design their own for their studies. And, even though scientific tools are constantly developing and changing, the previously developed rodent maze has remained relevant and valuable for a century.[2] 

The form, structure, and inflexibility of manual mazes often limit experimental paradigms that involve multiple or adaptive maze designs.[3] And every time, designing unique layouts for each experimental study, cost scientists a huge fraction of their time and effort. That’s why there was a need for flexible and scalable mazes that could save time for scientists to put into their research.[3] 

Additionally, the automated maze allows researchers to experiment with multiple track configurations in rapid succession, expedite the prototyping of behaviors, and enhance experimental reproducibility and repeatability[3]. Ultimately, this accelerates research on behavior and systems neuroscience.[3]

The automated mazes come with advanced integrated softwares that makes the studies easier and more precise.[3] For example, the ANY-maze tracking system allows automated testing in virtually any behavioral test.[4] It detects arm entries precisely by using whole-animal tracking, provides access to three-point tracking to extract more information on the animals’ location and orientation, and offers accurate results even in light variations, such as dim light.[4] 

Similarly, EthoVision XT, ANY-Maze, and BehaviorCloud are animal tracking and analysis programs that tracks the behavior, movement, and activity of any animal species.[5] With the software, you can analyze the time stamps and coordinates in many ways, including plots, graphs, tracks, and heatmaps.[5]

How To Choose An Automated Or Manual Maze

Rodents have been widely used in maze studies longer than before the 20th century. Popular mazes include  T-mazes, radial arm mazes, and Y-mazes to water mazes and elevated plus mazes are used to study the behavioral neuroscience of rodents; to learn their memory and spatial learning. But, all of them address different and variant research questions and come in both manual and automated forms

So, how can you decide what’s the right one for you? How do you know if a manual or automated one is what you need for your study?

We make it easy for you by explaining the factors below that you can refer to while choosing the right maze for your research studies:

  • Protocol and methodology: If you need a maze that streamlines your research and provides you with uninterrupted experience while performing your experimental studies, the automated maze is what you need. Further, it also enables reduced human contact, less manual interferences during studies, efficient reward use, and accurate replicability of the experiment. The manual maze, on the other hand, lacks these factors. Though, if you don’t want to prefer in-built methodologies and protocols that come with automated mazes, you might go for manual ones to mold them according to your research questions. However, it can be time-consuming.
  • Ease of use: Once set up correctly, automated mazes are easy to use, and more efficient and accurate data can be obtained with just one click. However, if you do not have the software and hardware knowledge you might find the manual mazes well-suited for your experiment.
  • Video tracking use: Automated mazes allow optimal results with video tracking software (non-reflective and high contrast). They are easy to set up and easy to clean, and surface texture can be selected based on the rodents’ comfort. The manual mazes can’t compete with these features of the automated ones.
  • Cost: The price of the equipment plays an essential role in the decision-making of acquiring the right tool for your lab. And, because the automated mazes match the advanced technologies and come with a spectrum of features they might be more pricey than that manual versions. So, if you’re low on budget you might want to go with manual mazes for your research studies.
  • Data Accuracy: The video tracking feature of the automated mazes allows researchers to obtain accurate and precise data for their applications. Further, it also helps industries to obtain compliance easily without running their experiments on repeat. This might be difficult with the manual mazes because of increased human interferences and lack of features like video tracking of rodents’ whole or three-point tracking systems that allow precise readings.


Mazes are one of the essential and widespread tools to study the behavioral patterns and neuroscience of rodents. Kline, Small, and Hunter are three popular scientists that extensively studied this tool and exploited it in the field of neuroscience to understand the memory and learnings of rodents. 

Though today a number of manual and automated mazes have been developed equipped with variant features to obtain accurate and precise results, some researchers still prefer to curate their own maze to answer their research questions. However, it’s a time taking approach and requires extensive knowledge to develop a maze of the experimental value.

So, if you have to pick a maze from the market, should you prefer a manual or automated maze? This depends on factors like the demanded data accuracy, budget, features needed, operational level, and protocol and methodology that need to be performed.

If you’re looking for a suitable maze for your experiment, we have a myriad of mazes in both automated and manual forms, ranging from T-maze, Y-maze, Elevated plus maze, radial-arm maze, morris water maze, and much more. Check out all of them here!


  1. Maze Engineers (2019). Top 10 Behavioral Mazes Of 2019. 
  2. ConductScience (2019).  History Of Mazes. 
  3. Jacob M Olson, Christopher A Leppla, John H Bladon, Shantanu P Jadhav. Adaptable and Automated Rodent Behavior Maze System. bioRxiv 2021.06.05.447225; DOI:
  4. Any-maze
  5. Video Tracking Software EthoVision XT

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