Acetylcholine mediates behavioral and neural post-error control

  • Danielmeier C
  • Allen E
  • Jocham G
 et al. 
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Summary Humans often commit errors when they are distracted by irrelevant information and no longer focus on what is relevant to the task at hand. Adjustments following errors are essential for optimizing goal achievement. The posterior medial frontal cortex (pMFC), a key area for monitoring errors, has been shown to trigger such post-error adjustments by modulating activity in visual cortical areas. However, the mechanisms by which pMFC controls sensory cortices are unknown. We provide evidence for a mechanism based on pMFC-induced recruitment of cholinergic projections to task-relevant sensory areas. Using fMRI in healthy volunteers, we found that error-related pMFC activity predicted subsequent adjustments in task-relevant visual brain areas. In particular, following an error, activity increased in those visual cortical areas involved in processing task-relevant stimulus features, whereas activity decreased in areas representing irrelevant, distracting features. Following treatment with the muscarinic acetylcholine receptor antagonist biperiden, activity in visual areas was no longer under control of error-related pMFC activity. This was paralleled by abolished post-error behavioral adjustments under biperiden. Our results reveal a prominent role of acetylcholine in cognitive control that has not been recognized thus far. Regaining optimal performance after errors critically depends on top-down control of perception driven by the pMFC and mediated by acetylcholine. This may explain the lack of adaptivity in conditions with reduced availability of cortical acetylcholine, such as Alzheimer's disease.

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