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J Neurosci. 2012 Aug 29;32(35):12115-28. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2271-12.2012.

Time to pay attention: attentional performance time-stamped prefrontal cholinergic activation, diurnality, and performance.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, USA.


Although the impairments in cognitive performance that result from shifting or disrupting daily rhythms have been demonstrated, the neuronal mechanisms that optimize fixed-time daily performance are poorly understood. We previously demonstrated that daily practice of a sustained attention task (SAT) evokes a diurnal activity pattern in rats. Here, we report that SAT practice at a fixed time produced practice time-stamped increases in prefrontal cholinergic neurotransmission that persisted after SAT practice was terminated and in a different environment. SAT time-stamped cholinergic activation occurred regardless of whether the SAT was practiced during the light or dark phase or in constant-light conditions. In contrast, prior daily practice of an operant schedule of reinforcement, albeit generating more rewards and lever presses per session than the SAT, neither activated the cholinergic system nor affected the animals' nocturnal activity pattern. Likewise, food-restricted animals exhibited strong food anticipatory activity (FAA) and attenuated activity during the dark phase but FAA was not associated with increases in prefrontal cholinergic activity. Removal of cholinergic neurons impaired SAT performance and facilitated the reemergence of nocturnality. Shifting SAT practice away from a fixed time resulted in significantly lower performance. In conclusion, these experiments demonstrated that fixed-time, daily practice of a task assessing attention generates a precisely practice time-stamped activation of the cortical cholinergic input system. Time-stamped cholinergic activation benefits fixed-time performance and, if practiced during the light phase, contributes to a diurnal activity pattern.

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