Climbing Fibers Provide Graded Error Signals in Cerebellar Learning

Front Syst Neurosci. 2019 Sep 11;13:46. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2019.00046. eCollection 2019.


The cerebellum plays a critical role in coordinating and learning complex movements. Although its importance has been well recognized, the mechanisms of learning remain hotly debated. According to the classical cerebellar learning theory, depression of parallel fiber synapses instructed by error signals from climbing fibers, drives cerebellar learning. The uniqueness of long-term depression (LTD) in cerebellar learning has been challenged by evidence showing multi-site synaptic plasticity. In Purkinje cells, long-term potentiation (LTP) of parallel fiber synapses is now well established and it can be achieved with or without climbing fiber signals, making the role of climbing fiber input more puzzling. The central question is how individual Purkinje cells extract global errors based on climbing fiber input. Previous data seemed to demonstrate that climbing fibers are inefficient instructors, because they were thought to carry "binary" error signals to individual Purkinje cells, which significantly constrains the efficiency of cerebellar learning in several regards. In recent years, new evidence has challenged the traditional view of "binary" climbing fiber responses, suggesting that climbing fibers can provide graded information to efficiently instruct individual Purkinje cells to learn. Here we review recent experimental and theoretical progress regarding modulated climbing fiber responses in Purkinje cells. Analog error signals are generated by the interaction of varying climbing fibers inputs with simultaneous other synaptic input and with firing states of targeted Purkinje cells. Accordingly, the calcium signals which trigger synaptic plasticity can be graded in both amplitude and spatial range to affect the learning rate and even learning direction. We briefly discuss how these new findings complement the learning theory and help to further our understanding of how the cerebellum works.

Keywords: Purkinje cell; cerebellar learning; climbing fiber; complex spike (CS); error signal.