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Behav Brain Res. 2007 Jul 19;181(1):52-63. Epub 2007 Mar 30.

Cholesterol enhances classical conditioning of the rabbit heart rate response.

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  • 1Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute and Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, West Virginia University, P.O. Box 9302, Morgantown, WV, United States.


The cholesterol-fed rabbit is a model of atherosclerosis and has been proposed as an animal model of Alzheimer's disease. Feeding rabbits cholesterol has been shown to increase the number of beta amyloid immunoreactive neurons in the cortex. Addition of copper to the drinking water of cholesterol-fed rabbits can increase this number still further and may lead to plaque-like structures. Classical conditioning of the nictitating membrane response in cholesterol-fed rabbits is retarded in the presence of these plaque-like structures but may be facilitated in their absence. In a factorial design, rabbits fed 2% cholesterol or a normal diet (0% cholesterol) for 8 weeks with or without copper added to the drinking water were given trace classical conditioning using a tone and periorbital electrodermal stimulation to study the effects of cholesterol and copper on classical conditioning of heart rate and the nictitating membrane response. Cholesterol-fed rabbits showed significant facilitation of heart rate conditioning and conditioning-specific modification of heart rate relative to normal diet controls. Consistent with previous research, cholesterol had minimal effects on classical conditioning of the nictitating membrane response when periorbital electrodermal stimulation was used as the unconditioned stimulus. Immunohistochemical analysis showed a significant increase in the number of beta amyloid positive neurons in the cortex, hippocampus and amygdala of the cholesterol-fed rabbits. Supplementation of drinking water with copper increased the number of beta amyloid positive neurons in the cortex of cholesterol-fed rabbits but did not produce plaque-like structures or have a significant effect on heart rate conditioning. The data provide additional support for our finding that, in the absence of plaques, dietary cholesterol may facilitate learning and memory.

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