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Neuroscience. 1990;34(2):311-29.

The effects of excitotoxic lesions of the basal forebrain on the acquisition, retention and serial reversal of visual discriminations in marmosets.

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Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, U.K.


The effects of N-methyl-D-aspartate-induced lesions of the basal forebrain (which included the cholinergic cells of the nucleus basalis of Meynert) were studied on three aspects of visual discrimination; learning, retention and reversal performance, in the marmoset. Neurobiological investigations revealed that the lesion produced large reductions in choline acetyltransferase activity within anterior regions of cortex, particularly prefrontal. In Experiment 1 lesioned animals showed impaired retention, one week after surgery, of a visual discrimination learned immediately prior to surgery and subsequently showed impaired performance over a series of reversals. The reversal deficit could be characterized as a tendency to perseverate on the previously correct stimulus on the first reversal and as a failure to show serial reversal learning on subsequent reversals. Acquisition of a novel discrimination was not impaired five weeks after surgery. As time of testing may have been a confounding factor, in Experiment 2 the effects of the same lesion on new learning were examined immediately following surgery and the effects on retention a month later. The lesion was found to disrupt new learning but did not affect retention. From the two experiments it is clear that, whereas disruption of retention and new learning was relatively transient, the impairments in reversal performance were more long lasting. In addition, lesioned animals exhibited behavioural hyperactivity and elevations in consummatory and schedule-controlled licking. The disinhibitory and preservative effects observed following lesions of the basal forebrain in this study are similar to those following lesions of the orbitofrontal cortex while the disruption of serial reversal learning is commonly seen following damage to the amygdala. Therefore, these results are consistent with the hypothesis that the range of behavioural effects of the lesion result from damage to the cholinergic afferents to orbitofrontal cortex and to the amygdala, two structures intimately connected to one another.

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