Abstract

High central nervous system levels of acetylcholine (ACh) are commonly regarded as crucial for learning and memory, and a decline in cholinergic neurotransmission is associated with Alzheimer's dementia. However, recent findings revealed exceptions to this rule: The low ACh tone characterizing slowwave sleep (SWS) has proven necessary for consolidation of hippocampus-dependent declarative memories during this sleep stage. Such observations, together with recent models of a hippocampal-neocortical dialogue underlying systems memory consolidation, suggest that high levels of ACh support memory encoding, whereas low levels facilitate consolidation. We tested this hypothesis in human subjects by blocking cholinergic neurotransmission during wakefulness, starting 30 min after learning. Subjects received the muscarinic antagonist scopolamine (4 µg/kg bodyweight intravenously) and the nicotinic antagonist mecamylamine (5 mg orally). Compared to placebo, combined muscarinic and nicotinic receptor blockade significantly improved consolidation of declarative memories tested 10 hr later, but simultaneously impaired acquisition of similar material. Consolidation of procedural memories, which are not dependent on hippocampal functioning, was unaffected. Neither scopolamine nor mecamylamine alone enhanced declarative memory consolidation. Our findings support the notion that ACh acts as a switch between modes of acquisition and consolidation. We propose that the natural shift in central nervous system cholinergic tone from high levels during wakefulness to minimal levels during SWS optimizes declarative memory consolidation during a period with no need for new memory encoding.

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