Involvement of the cholinergic system in conditioning and perceptual memory

Lianne Robinson, Bettina Platt, Gernot Riedel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

97 Citations (Scopus)


The cholinergic systems play a pivotal role in learning and memory, and have been the centre of attention when it comes to diseases containing cognitive deficits. It is therefore not surprising, that the cholinergic transmitter system has experienced detailed examination of its role in numerous behavioural situations not least with the perspective that cognition may be rescued with appropriate cholinergic ‘boosters’. Here we reviewed the literature on (i) cholinergic lesions, (ii) pharmacological intervention of muscarinic or nicotinic system, or (iii) genetic deletion of selective receptor subtypes with respect to sensory discrimination and conditioning procedures. We consider visual, auditory, olfactory and somatosensory processing first before discussing more complex tasks such as startle responses, latent inhibition, negative patterning, eye blink and fear conditioning, and passive avoidance paradigms. An overarching reoccurring theme is that lesions of the cholinergic projection neurones of the basal
forebrain impact negatively on acquisition learning in these paradigms and blockade of muscarinic (and to a lesser extent nicotinic) receptors in the target structures produce similar behavioural deficits. While these pertain mainly to impairments in acquisition learning, some rare cases extend to memory consolidation. Such single case observations warranted replication and more in-depth studies. Intriguingly, receptor blockade or receptor gene knockout repeatedly produced contradictory results (for example in fear conditioning) and combined studies, in which genetically altered mice are pharmacological manipulated, are so far missing. However, they are desperately needed to clarify underlying reasons for these contradictions. Consistently, stimulation of either muscarinic (mainly M1) or nicotinic (predominantly 7) receptors was beneficial for learning and memory formation across all paradigms supporting the notion that research into the development and mechanisms of novel and better cholinomimetics may prove useful in the treatment of neurodegenerative or psychiatric disorders with cognitive endophenotypes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)443-465
Number of pages23
JournalBehavioural Brain Research
Issue number2
Early online date9 Feb 2011
Publication statusPublished - 10 Aug 2011


  • Muscarinic
  • Nicotinic
  • Learning
  • Memory
  • Conditioning


Dive into the research topics of 'Involvement of the cholinergic system in conditioning and perceptual memory'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this