The role of the central cholinergic projections in cognition: implications of the effects of scopolamine on discrimination learning by monkeys

Brain Res Bull. 1998;45(3):319-26. doi: 10.1016/s0361-9230(97)00381-x.


In humans, administration of the cholinergic antagonist scopolamine impairs the encoding of information into long-term memory and has effects on other cognitive processes. It has been supposed that it is inhibition of the rising cholinergic projections from the basal forebrain, specifically from the basal nucleus of Meynert (NBM) to the neocortex and from the medial septum/vertical limb of the diagonal band of Broca (MS/VDB) to the hippocampus, that results in these cognitive impairments. In this paper, we describe the effects of scopolamine treatment in monkeys on learning different sorts of visual discrimination and visuospatial conditional tasks and compare these results to the effects of lesions of the rising cholinergic projections. Experiments in rodents in which these projections have been selectively destroyed have failed to produce a consensus view of the functions of these two areas. In particular, highly specific immunotoxic lesions of the NBM have largely failed to produce changes in task performance that can be interpreted as resulting from a cognitive impairment. In monkeys, lesions of the NBM produce modest or short-lasting, impairments in visual discrimination learning, retention, and reversal, whereas lesions of the MS/VDB produce large and permanent impairments of certain types of conditional learning. Similar impairments produced by scopolamine in monkeys and additive effects of lesions of the NBM or MS/VDB with scopolamine suggest that scopolamine has these effects by acting on the rising cholinergic pathways rather than on other cholinergic systems in the brain. It is argued that the rising cholinergic projections sustain the functions of the target areas; in the case of the hippocampus in humans, the function is usually regarded as being the analysis of information in a way that is pertinent to the formation of episodic memories and in the case of the neocortex, is the analysis of information in a manner that is relevant to the cognitive processing of on-going events and the acquisition of semantic knowledge.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Callithrix
  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Conditioning, Operant / drug effects
  • Discrimination Learning / drug effects*
  • Macaca fascicularis
  • Muscarinic Antagonists / pharmacology*
  • Neural Pathways / drug effects
  • Rats
  • Scopolamine / pharmacology*
  • Substantia Innominata / drug effects
  • Visual Perception / drug effects


  • Muscarinic Antagonists
  • Scopolamine
  • Acetylcholine