Rationale: Nicotinic receptors have been implicated in attentional performance. Nicotine can improve attention in animals and humans, but knowledge about relevant receptor subtypes is very limited.
Objectives: The aim was to examine the role of alpha7 receptors in attentional performance of mice and in effects of nicotine.
Materials and methods: Mice with targeted deletion of the gene coding for the alpha7 subunit of nicotinic receptors and wild-type controls were trained on a five-choice serial reaction time task with food reinforcers presented under varying parametric conditions. Nicotine was administered in a range of doses (0.001-1.0 mg/kg sc), including those reported to enhance attentional performance.
Results: Initially the alpha7(-/-) (knockout) mice responded less accurately and made more anticipatory responses. After task parameters were altered so that the time allowed for responding was reduced and anticipatory (impulsive) responses were punished by a time-out, the pattern of performance deficits changed; there were increased omission errors in alpha7(-/-) mice but normal levels of accuracy and anticipatory responding. Nicotine did not improve any measure of performance, either with the original training parameters or after retraining; the largest dose used (1.0 mg/kg) produced a general impairment of responding in alpha7(-/-) and wild-type mice.
Conclusions: alpha7 nicotinic receptor knockout mice are impaired in performance of the 5-CSRTT, suggesting a possible role for alpha7 receptors in attentional processing. However, identification of a protocol for assessing attention-enhancing effects of nicotine in mice may require further modifications of test procedures or the use of different strains of animal.