Learning through experience underlies the ability to adapt to novel tasks and unfamiliar environments. However, learning must be regulated so that relevant aspects of the environment are selectively encoded. Acetylcholine (ACh) has been suggested to regulate learning by enhancing the responses of sensory cortical neurons to behaviorally relevant stimuli. In this study, we increased synaptic levels of ACh in the brains of healthy human subjects with the cholinesterase inhibitor donepezil (trade name: Aricept) and measured the effects of this cholinergic enhancement on visual perceptual learning. Each subject completed two 5 day courses of training on a motion direction discrimination task, once while ingesting 5 mg of donepezil before every training session and once while placebo was administered. We found that cholinergic enhancement augmented perceptual learning for stimuli having the same direction of motion and visual field location used during training. In addition, perceptual learning with donepezil was more selective to the trained direction of motion and visual field location. These results, combined with previous studies demonstrating an increase in neuronal selectivity following cholinergic enhancement, suggest a possible mechanism by which ACh augments neural plasticity by directing activity to populations of neurons that encode behaviorally relevant stimulus features.
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