Cholinergic modulation of cognition: insights from human pharmacological functional neuroimaging

Prog Neurobiol. 2011 Sep 1;94(4):360-88. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2011.06.002. Epub 2011 Jun 17.


Evidence from lesion and cortical-slice studies implicate the neocortical cholinergic system in the modulation of sensory, attentional and memory processing. In this review we consider findings from sixty-three healthy human cholinergic functional neuroimaging studies that probe interactions of cholinergic drugs with brain activation profiles, and relate these to contemporary neurobiological models. Consistent patterns that emerge are: (1) the direction of cholinergic modulation of sensory cortex activations depends upon top-down influences; (2) cholinergic hyperstimulation reduces top-down selective modulation of sensory cortices; (3) cholinergic hyperstimulation interacts with task-specific frontoparietal activations according to one of several patterns, including: suppression of parietal-mediated reorienting; decreasing 'effort'-associated activations in prefrontal regions; and deactivation of a 'resting-state network' in medial cortex, with reciprocal recruitment of dorsolateral frontoparietal regions during performance-challenging conditions; (4) encoding-related activations in both neocortical and hippocampal regions are disrupted by cholinergic blockade, or enhanced with cholinergic stimulation, while the opposite profile is observed during retrieval; (5) many examples exist of an 'inverted-U shaped' pattern of cholinergic influences by which the direction of functional neural activation (and performance) depends upon both task (e.g. relative difficulty) and subject (e.g. age) factors. Overall, human cholinergic functional neuroimaging studies both corroborate and extend physiological accounts of cholinergic function arising from other experimental contexts, while providing mechanistic insights into cholinergic-acting drugs and their potential clinical applications.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / metabolism*
  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Databases, Factual
  • Functional Neuroimaging / methods*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology


  • Acetylcholine