Visual Discrimination Performance in Rats: Role of Acetylcholine and Synaptic Correlates in the Primary Visual Cortex and Hippocampus

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Tsui, Claudia Ka Yan
Acetylcholine , Learning and Memory , Attention , Primary Visual Cortex (V1) , Visual Discrimination , Visual Evoked Potentials , Hippocampus , Muscarinic Receptors , Scopolamine
The notion that learning and memory processes are highly dependent on central cholinergic neurotransmission has been widely accepted. However, studies documenting the importance of Acetylcholine (ACh) in attention have led some to suggest that attention impairments may underlie the deficits in learning and memory resulting from cholinergic disruptions. Using a visual discrimination task, I attempted to discern whether performance impairments by Scopolamine were predominantly due to the importance of muscarinic receptor integrity in attention, or memory consolidation in learning. Rats were trained in a visual discrimination task using a Y-shaped water maze apparatus. To successfully navigate to a hidden platform located in one of the two goal arms, rats learned to discriminate between 2 distinct visual cues, indicating the platform’s presence (CS+) or absence (CS-), respectively. Following task acquisition, testing continued using a combination of Regular trials (RT; both CS+ and CS- present) and Probe trials (PT; only one of the cues present). Results indicated that performance on PT was impaired due to greater task difficulty under conditions of reduced information, while Scopolamine (1 mg/kg) further impacted PT performance without affecting RTs. In a second experiment, PTs were administered with the platform present to provide reinforcement and a learning opportunity. Animals still exhibited poorer PT performance, but rapidly learned to rely on a single cue for accurate platform localization. Interestingly, this learning was not apparent under conditions of Scopolamine treatment (1 mg/kg), even though RT performance was completely unaffected. To examine experience-dependent changes in neuronal responding after visual discrimination learning, a subset of animals were anesthetised and visual evoked potentials (VEPs) in V1 and area CA1 of the hippocampus were recorded in response to CS+, CS-, and novel stimuli. In both the V1 and CA1, the VEP amplitudes elicited to familiar and novel stimuli were not significantly different. First, these experiments demonstrate the importance of the cholinergic system in sustaining visual attention and acquiring a new single-cue strategy. Furthermore, the null electrophysiology findings do not rule out the plastic response properties of the mature V1 and CA1, but remind us of the complex nature of memory encoding in the brain.
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