Feedback control of learning by the cerebello-olivary pathway

Prog Brain Res. 2014;210:103-19. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-63356-9.00005-4.


The ability to anticipate future events and to modify erroneous anticipatory actions is crucial for the survival of any organism. Both theoretical and empirical lines of evidence implicate the cerebellum in this ability. It is often suggested that the cerebellum acquires "expectations" or "internal models." However, except in a metaphorical sense, the cerebellum, which consists of a set of interconnected nerve cells, cannot contain "internal models" or "have expectations." In this chapter, we try to untangle these metaphors by translating them back into neurophysiological cause and effect relationships. We approach this task from within the paradigm of classical conditioning, in which a subject, through repeated presentations of a conditional stimulus, followed by an unconditional stimulus, acquires a conditioned response. Importantly, the conditioned response is timed so that it anticipates the unconditioned response. Available neurophysiological evidence suggests that Purkinje cells, in the cerebellar cortex, generate the conditioned response. In addition, Purkinje cells provide negative feedback to the inferior olive, which is a relay for the unconditional stimulus, via the nucleo-olivary pathway. Purkinje cells can therefore regulate the intensity of the signal derived from the unconditional stimulus, which, in turn, decides subsequent plasticity. Hence, as learning progresses, the olivary signal will become weaker and weaker due to increasing negative feedback from Purkinje cells. Thus, in an important sense, learning-induced changes in Purkinje cell activity constitute an "expectation" or "anticipation" of a future event (the unconditional stimulus), and, consistent with theoretical models, future learning depends on the accuracy of this expectation.

Keywords: Purkinje cells; cerebellum; classical conditioning; feedback; inferior olive; internal models; nucleo-olivary inhibition.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cerebellum / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology*
  • Feedback, Psychological / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Olivary Nucleus / physiology*