The role of muscarinic cholinergic signaling in cost-benefit decision making
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Animals regularly face decisions that affect both their immediate success and long term survival. Such decisions typically involve some form of cost-benefit analysis and engage a number of high level cognitive processes, including learning, memory and motivational influences. While decision making has been a focus of study for over a century, it’s only in the last 20 years that researchers have begun to identify functional neural circuits that subserve different forms of cost-benefit decision making. Even though the cholinergic system is both functionally and anatomically positioned to modulate cost-benefit decision circuits, the contribution of the cholinergic system to decision making has been little studied. In this thesis, I investigated the cognitive and neural contribution of muscarinic cholinergic signaling to cost-benefit decision making. I, first, re-examined the effects of systemic administration of 0.3 mg/kg atropine on delay and probability discounting tasks and found that blockade of muscarinic acetylcholine receptors by atropine induced suboptimal choices (impulsive and risky) in both tasks. Since the effect on delay discounting was restricted to the No Cue version of the delay discounting task, I concluded that muscarinic cholinergic signaling mediates both forms of cost-benefit decision making and is selectively engaged when decisions require valuation of reward options whose costs are not externally signified. Second, I assessed the impact of inactivating the nucleus basalis (NBM) on both forms decision making and the effect of injecting atropine locally into the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), basolateral amygdala (BLA), or nucleus accumbens (NAc) core during the No Cue version of the delay discounting task. I discovered that although NBM inactivation failed to affect delay discounting, it induced risk aversion in the probability discounting task; and blockade of intra- NAc core, but not intra-OFC or intra-BLA, muscarinic cholinergic signaling lead to increased choice of the delayed reward. While those findings implicate the NBM in supporting risky choices and intra-NAc core muscarinic signaling in discouraging delayed choice, more work is needed to fully elucidate the underlying mechanisms.