Nucleus basalis stimulation enhances working memory by stabilizing stimulus representations in primate prefrontal cortical activity

Cell Rep. 2021 Aug 3;36(5):109469. doi: 10.1016/j.celrep.2021.109469.


Acetylcholine plays a critical role in the neocortex. Cholinergic agonists and acetylcholinesterase inhibitors can enhance cognitive functioning, as does intermittent electrical stimulation of the cortical source of acetylcholine, the nucleus basalis (NB) of Meynert. Here we show in two male monkeys how NB stimulation affects working memory and alters its neural code. NB stimulation increases dorsolateral prefrontal activity during the delay period of spatial working memory tasks and broadens selectivity for stimuli but does not strengthen phasic responses to each neuron's optimal visual stimulus. Paradoxically, despite this decrease in neuronal selectivity, performance improves in many task conditions, likely indicating increased delay period stability. Performance under NB stimulation does decline if distractors similar to the target are presented, consistent with reduced prefrontal selectivity. Our results indicate that stimulation of the cholinergic forebrain increases prefrontal neural activity, and this neuromodulatory tone can improve cognitive performance, subject to a stability-accuracy tradeoff.

Keywords: acetylcholine; basal forebrain; cognition; monkey; neurophysiology.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Animals
  • Basal Nucleus of Meynert / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Task Performance and Analysis