Central cholinergic involvement in sequential behavior: Impairments of performance by atropine in a serial multiple choice task for rats.
Two experiments examined whether muscarinic cholinergic systems play a role in rats ability to perform well-learned highly-structured serial response patterns, particularly focusing on rats performance on pattern elements learned by encoding rules versus by acquisition of stimulus-response (S-R) associations. Rats performed serial patterns of responses in a serial multiple choice task in an 8-lever circular array for hypothalamic brain-stimulation reward. Two experiments examined the effects of atropine, a centrally-acting muscarinic cholinergic receptor antagonist, on rats ability to perform pattern elements where responses were controlled by rules versus elements, such as rule-inconsistent "violation elements" and elements following "phrasing cues," where responses were controlled by associative cues. In Experiment 1, 3-element chunks of both patterns were signaled by pauses that served as phrasing cues before chunk-boundary elements, but one pattern also included a violation element that was inconsistent with pattern structure. Once rats reached a high criterion of performance, the drug challenge was intraperitoneal injection of a single dose of 50mg/kg atropine sulfate. Atropine impaired performance on elements learned by S-R learning, namely, chunk-boundary elements and the violation element, but had no effect on performance of rule-based within-chunk elements. In Experiment 2, patterns were phrased and unphrased perfect patterns (i.e., without violation elements). To control for peripheral effects of atropine, rats were treated with a series of doses of either centrally-acting atropine or peripherally-acting atropine methyl nitrate (AMN), which does not cross the blood-brain barrier. Once rats reached a high criterion, the drug challenges were on alternate days in the order 50, 25, and 100mg/kg of either atropine sulfate or AMN. Atropine, but not AMN, impaired performance in the phrased perfect pattern for pattern elements where S-R associations were important for performance, namely, chunk-boundary elements. However, in the structurally more ambiguous unphrased perfect pattern where rats had fewer cues and presumably relied more on S-R associations throughout, atropine impaired performance on all pattern elements. Thus, intact muscarinic cholinergic systems were shown to be necessary for discriminative control previously established by S-R learning, but were not necessary for rule-based serial pattern performance.