Two experiments examined the effects of reductions in cortical cholinergic function on performance of a novel task that allowed for the simultaneous assessment of attention to a visual stimulus and memory for that stimulus over a variable delay within the same test session. In the first experiment, infusions of the muscarinic receptor antagonist scopolamine into the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) produced many omissions but did not impair rats' ability to correctly detect a brief visual stimulus. However, these animals were highly impaired in remembering the location of that stimulus following a delay period, although in a delay-independent manner. In the second experiment, another group of animals with selective 192 IgG-saporin lesions of the nucleus basalis magnocellularis (nBM) were not impaired under conditions of low-attentional demand. However, when the stimulus duration was reduced, a significant memory impairment was observed, but similar to the results of the first experiment, the nBM-lesioned animals were not impaired in attentional accuracy, although aspects of attention were compromised (e.g., omissions). These findings demonstrate that (1) cortical cholinergic depletion produces dissociable deficits in attention and memory, depending on the task demands, (2) delay-independent mnemonic deficits produced by scopolamine are probably due to impairments other than simple inattention, and (3) working memory deficits are not simply dependent on attentional difficulties per se. Together, these findings implicate the nBM cortical cholinergic system in both attentional and mnemonic processing.
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