Classical blink conditioning is a well known model for studying neural generation of acquired motor responses. The acquisition of this type of associative learning has been related to many cortical, subcortical, and cerebellar structures. However, until now, no one has studied the motor cortex (MC) and its possible role in classical eyeblink conditioning. We recorded in rabbits the activity of MC neurons during blink conditioning using a delay paradigm. Neurons were identified by their antidromic activation from facial nucleus (FN) or red nucleus (RN). For conditioning, we used a tone as a conditioned stimulus (CS) followed by an air puff as an unconditioned stimulus (US) that coterminated with it. Conditioned responses (CRs) were determined from the electromyographic activity of the orbicularis oculi muscle and/or from eyelid position recorded with the search coil technique. Type A neurons increased their discharge rates across conditioning sessions and reached peak firing during the CS-US interval, while type B cells presented a second peak during US presentation. Both of them project to the FN. Type C cells increased their firing across the CS-US interval, reaching peak values at the time of US presentation, and were activated from the RN. These three types of neurons fired well in advance of the beginning of CRs and changed with them. Reversible inactivation of the MC during conditioning evoked a decrease in learning curves and in the amplitude of CRs, while train stimulation of the MC simulated the profile and kinematics of conditioned blinks. In conclusion, MC neurons are involved in the acquisition and expression of CRs.
Significance statement: Classical blink conditioning is a popular experimental model for studying neural mechanisms underlying the acquisition of motor skills. The acquisition of this type of associative learning has been related to many cortical, subcortical, and cerebellar structures. However, until now, no one has studied the motor cortex (MC) and its possible role in classical eyeblink conditioning. Here, we report that the firing activities of MC neurons, recorded in behaving rabbits, are related to and preceded the initiation of conditioned blinks. MC neurons were identified as projecting to the red or facial nuclei and encoded the kinematics of conditioned eyelid responses. The timed stimulation of recording sites simulated the profile of conditioned blinks. MC neurons play a role in the acquisition and expression of these acquired motor responses.
Keywords: associative learning; delay conditioning; motor cortex; rabbits; unitary recordings.
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