A large body of literature supports cognitive enhancement as an effect of cholinergic potentiation. However, it remains elusive whether pharmacological manipulations of cholinergic neurotransmission enhance complex visual processing in healthy individuals. To test this hypothesis, we randomly administered either the cholinergic transmission enhancer donepezil (DPZ; 5 mg P.O.) or placebo (lactose) to young adults (n = 17) 3 h before each session of the three-dimensional (3D) multiple object tracking (3D-MOT) task. This multi-focal attention task evaluates perceptual-cognitive learning over five sessions conducted 7 days apart. A significant amount of learning was observed in the DPZ group but not the placebo group in the fourth session. In the fifth session, this learning effect was observed in both groups. Furthermore, preliminary results for a subgroup of participants (n = 9) 4-14 months later suggested the cholinergic enhancement effect was long lasting. On the other hand, DPZ had no effect on basic visual processing as measured by a motion and orientation discrimination task performed as an independent one-time, pre-post drug study without placebo control (n = 10). The results support the construct that cholinergic enhancement facilitates the encoding of a highly demanding perceptual-cognitive task although there were no significant drug effects on the performance levels compared to placebo.
Keywords: 3D-multiple object tracking/NeuroTracker; acetylcholine; acetylcholinesterase inhibitor; attention; cognitive enhancer; donepezil; sensory training; visual learning.