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PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e56206. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0056206. Epub 2013 Feb 18.

Cognitive performance as a zeitgeber: cognitive oscillators and cholinergic modulation of the SCN entrain circadian rhythms.

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Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States of America.


The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is the primary circadian pacemaker in mammals that can synchronize or entrain to environmental cues. Although light exerts powerful influences on SCN output, other non-photic stimuli can modulate the SCN as well. We recently demonstrated that daily performance of a cognitive task requiring sustained periods of attentional effort that relies upon basal forebrain (BF) cholinergic activity dramatically alters circadian rhythms in rats. In particular, normally nocturnal rats adopt a robust diurnal activity pattern that persists for several days in the absence of cognitive training. Although anatomical and pharmacological data from non-performing animals support a relationship between cholinergic signaling and circadian rhythms, little is known about how endogenous cholinergic signaling influences SCN function in behaving animals. Here we report that BF cholinergic projections to the SCN provide the principal signal allowing for the expression of cognitive entrainment in light-phase trained animals. We also reveal that oscillator(s) outside of the SCN drive cognitive entrainment as daily timed cognitive training robustly entrains SCN-lesioned arrhythmic animals. Ablation of the SCN, however, resulted in significant impairments in task acquisition, indicating that SCN-mediated timekeeping benefits new learning and cognitive performance. Taken together, we conclude that cognition entrains non-photic oscillators, and cholinergic signaling to the SCN serves as a temporal timestamp attenuating SCN photic-driven rhythms, thereby permitting cognitive demands to modulate behavior.

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