Neural representations of the external world are constructed and updated in a manner that depends on behavioral context. For neocortical networks, this contextual information is relayed by a diverse range of neuromodulatory systems, which govern attention and signal the value of internal state variables such as arousal, motivation, and stress. Neuromodulators enable cortical circuits to differentially process specific stimuli and modify synaptic strengths in order to maintain short- or long-term memory traces of significant perceptual events and behavioral episodes. One of the most important subcortical neuromodulatory systems for attention and arousal is the noradrenergic locus coeruleus. Here we report that the noradrenergic system can enhance behavior in rats performing a self-initiated auditory recognition task, and optogenetic stimulation of noradrenergic locus coeruleus neurons accelerated the rate at which trained rats began correctly responding to a change in reward contingency. Animals successively progressed through distinct behavioral epochs, including periods of perseverance and exploration that occurred much more rapidly when animals received locus coeruleus stimulation. In parallel, we made recordings from primary auditory cortex and found that pairing tones with locus coeruleus stimulation led to a similar set of changes to cortical tuning profiles. Thus both behavioral and neural responses go through phases of adjustment for exploring and exploiting environmental reward contingencies. Furthermore, behavioral engagement does not necessarily recruit optimal locus coeruleus activity.
Keywords: Auditory cortex; Behavior; Locus coeruleus; Norepinephrine; Perceptual learning; Plasticity.
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