Although it is generally assumed that brain circuits are modified by new experiences, the question of which changes in synaptic efficacy take place in cortical and subcortical circuits across the learning process remains unanswered. Rats were trained in the acquisition of an operant conditioning in a Skinner box provided with light beams to detect animals' approaches to lever and feeder. Behaviors such as pressing the lever, eating, exploring, and grooming were also recorded. Animals were chronically implanted with stimulating and recording electrodes in hippocampal, prefrontal, and subcortical sites relevant to the task. Field synaptic potentials were evoked during the performance of the above-mentioned behaviors and before, during, and after the acquisition process. Afferent pathways to the hippocampus and the intrinsic hippocampal circuit were slightly modified in synaptic strength during the performance of those behaviors. In contrast, afferent and efferent circuits of the medial prefrontal cortex were significantly modified in synaptic strength across training sessions, mostly at the moment of the largest change in the learning curve. Performance of behaviors nondirectly related to the acquisition process (exploring, grooming) also evoked changes in synaptic strength across training. This study helps to understand when and where learning is being engraved in the brain.
Keywords: behaving rats; hippocampus; learning-dependent synaptic plasticity; medial prefrontal cortex; operant conditioning.
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