The purpose of this review is to summarize the present knowledge on the interplay among the cholinergic system, Extracellular signal-Regulated Kinase (ERK) and Mammalian Target of Rapamycin (mTOR) pathways in the development of short and long term memories during the acquisition and recall of the step-down inhibitory avoidance in the hippocampus. The step-down inhibitory avoidance is a form of associative learning that is acquired in a relatively simple one-trial test through several sensorial inputs. Inhibitory avoidance depends on the integrated activity of hippocampal CA1 and other brain areas. Recall can be performed at different times after acquisition, thus allowing for the study of both short and long term memory. Among the many neurotransmitter systems involved, the cholinergic neurons that originate in the basal forebrain and project to the hippocampus are of crucial importance in inhibitory avoidance processes. Acetylcholine released from cholinergic fibers during acquisition and/or recall of behavioural tasks activates muscarinic and nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and brings about a long-lasting potentiation of the postsynaptic membrane followed by downstream activation of intracellular pathway (ERK, among others) that create conditions favourable for neuronal plasticity. ERK appears to be salient not only in long term memory, but also in the molecular mechanisms underlying short term memory formation in the hippocampus. Since ERK can function as a biochemical coincidence detector in response to extracellular signals in neurons, the activation of ERK-dependent downstream effectors is determined, in part, by the duration of ERK phosphorylation itself. Long term memories require protein synthesis, that in the synapto-dendritic compartment represents a direct mechanism that can produce rapid changes in protein content in response to synaptic activity. mTOR in the brain regulates protein translation in response to neuronal activity, thereby modulating synaptic plasticity and long term memory formation. Some studies demonstrate a complex interplay among the cholinergic system, ERK and mTOR. It has been shown that co-activation of muscarinic acetylcholine receptors and β-adrenergic receptors facilitates the conversion of short term to long term synaptic plasticity through an ERK- and mTOR-dependent mechanism which requires translation initiation. It seems therefore that the complex interplay among the cholinergic system, ERK and mTOR is crucial in the development of new inhibitory avoidance memories in the hippocampus.
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