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How we learn new motor skills: a role for cerebellar acetylcholine?

Cholinergic fibres within the cerebellum are shown in green. These fibres contain light-sensitive channels which allow them to be selectively activated.

6 June 2018

A new project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), aims to provide a mechanistic understanding of how neural circuits within the brain give rise to our ability to learn new movements.

Our improvement of voluntary skills with practice and adaption of reflex responses are two forms of motor learning. Whilst motor learning involves a large network of brain regions, the cerebellum is critically involved – when the cerebellum is damaged our capacity to learn new voluntary movements and adapt reflex responses is severely impaired.

Acetylcholine is vital for learning and memory. However, almost nothing is known about the behavioural significance of acetylcholine release in the cerebellum. The main source of cerebellar acetylcholine is from cholinergic neurons originating in a brainstem structure called the pedunculopontine nucleus.

Prof. Richard Apps and Prof. Zafar Bashir have been awarded £500,000 by the BBSRC to test the hypothesis that cholinergic projections from the pedunculopontine nucleus to the cerebellum regulate neuronal function to control motor learning.

Dr Jasmine Pickford, the research associate on this project, says:

“This is a really exciting project which will allow us to study the roles of acetylcholine in the cerebellum, expanding on the results I obtained from my PhD studies. I will learn a number of state of the art skills on this project, which will be combined to study the behavioural effects of manipulating the cholinergic system as well as identifying the underlying mechanisms of these changes.”

The project will include examining neuronal activity, pharmacological testing and optogenetics (light stimulation) to control neurons that have been genetically modified to express light-sensitive ion channels. These approaches will be used to selectively stimulate acetylcholine release in the cerebellum to determine how this neuromodulator controls neuronal and synaptic function.

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