Cholinergic dysfunction in the dorsal striatum promotes habit formation and maladaptive eating

J Clin Invest. 2020 Dec 1;130(12):6616-6630. doi: 10.1172/JCI138532.


Dysregulation of habit formation has been recently proposed as pivotal to eating disorders. Here, we report that a subset of patients suffering from restrictive anorexia nervosa have enhanced habit formation compared with healthy controls. Habit formation is modulated by striatal cholinergic interneurons. These interneurons express vesicular transporters for acetylcholine (VAChT) and glutamate (VGLUT3) and use acetylcholine/glutamate cotransmission to regulate striatal functions. Using mice with genetically silenced VAChT (VAChT conditional KO, VAChTcKO) or VGLUT3 (VGLUT3cKO), we investigated the roles that acetylcholine and glutamate released by cholinergic interneurons play in habit formation and maladaptive eating. Silencing glutamate favored goal-directed behaviors and had no impact on eating behavior. In contrast, VAChTcKO mice were more prone to habits and maladaptive eating. Specific deletion of VAChT in the dorsomedial striatum of adult mice was sufficient to phenocopy maladaptive eating behaviors of VAChTcKO mice. Interestingly, VAChTcKO mice had reduced dopamine release in the dorsomedial striatum but not in the dorsolateral striatum. The dysfunctional eating behavior of VAChTcKO mice was alleviated by donepezil and by l-DOPA, confirming an acetylcholine/dopamine deficit. Our study reveals that loss of acetylcholine leads to a dopamine imbalance in striatal compartments, thereby promoting habits and vulnerability to maladaptive eating in mice.

Keywords: Mouse models; Neuroscience; Psychiatric diseases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / metabolism*
  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Corpus Striatum* / metabolism
  • Corpus Striatum* / physiopathology
  • Donepezil / pharmacology
  • Feeding Behavior / drug effects
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / drug therapy
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / genetics
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / metabolism*
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Interneurons / metabolism*
  • Levodopa / pharmacology
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Middle Aged
  • Vesicular Acetylcholine Transport Proteins / genetics
  • Vesicular Acetylcholine Transport Proteins / metabolism


  • SLC18A3 protein, human
  • Slc18a3 protein, mouse
  • Vesicular Acetylcholine Transport Proteins
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Levodopa
  • Donepezil
  • Acetylcholine