Study Title:

The cholinergic system, circadian rhythmicity, and time memory.

Study Abstract

This review provides an overview of the interaction between the mammalian cholinergic system and circadian system, and its possible role in time memory. Several studies made clear that circadian (daily) fluctuations in acetylcholine (ACh) release, cholinergic enzyme activity and cholinergic receptor expression varies remarkably between species and even strains. Apparently, cholinergic features can be flexibly adjusted to the needs of a species or strain. Nevertheless, it can be generalized that circadian rhythmicity in the cholinergic system is characterized by high ACh release during the active phase of an individual. During the active phase, the activity of the ACh synthesizing enzyme Choline Acetyltransferase (ChAT) is enhanced, and the activity of the ACh degrading enzyme Acetylcholinesterase (AChE) is reduced. The number of free, unbound and thus available muscarinic acetylcholine receptors (mAChRs) is highest when ACh release is lowest. The cholinergic innervation of the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), the hypothalamic circadian master clock, arises from the cholinergic forebrain and brain stem nuclei. The density of cholinergic fibers and terminals is modest as compared to other hypothalamic nuclei. This is the case for rat, hamster and mouse, three chronobiological model rodent species studied by us. A new finding is that the rat SCN contains some local cholinergic neurons. Hamster SCN contains less cholinergic neurons, whereas the mouse SCN is devoid of such cells. ACh has an excitatory effect on SCN cells (at least in vivo), and functions in close interaction with other neurotransmitters. Originally it was thought that ACh transferred retinal light information to the SCN. This turned out to be wrong. Thereafter, the phase shifting effects of ACh prompted researches to view ACh as an agent for nocturnal clock resetting. It is still not clear, however, what the function consequence is of SCN cholinergic neurotransmission. Here, we postulate the hypothesis that cholinergic neurotransmission in the SCN provides the brain with a mechanism to support the formation of time memory via 'time stamping'. We define time memory as the memory of a specific time of the day, for which an animal made an association with a certain event and/or location (for example in case of time-place association). We use the term 'time stamping' to refer to the process underlying the encoding of a specific time of day (the time stamp). Only relatively brief but arousing events seem to be time stamped at SCN level. This time stamping requires the engagement of mAChRs. New data suggests that the SCN uses the neuropeptide vasopressin (AVP) as an output system to transfer the specific time of day information to other brain regions such as hippocampus and neocortex where time memory is supposed to be acquired, consolidated and stored. Since time stamping is a cholinergically mediated function of the circadian system, the early disruption of the cholinergic and circadian systems as seen in Alzheimer's disease (AD) may contribute to the cognitive disruption of temporal organization of memory and behavior in these patients.
Copyright © 2010 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Study Information

Behav Brain Res. 2011 Aug 10;221(2):466-80. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2010.11.039. Epub 2010 Nov 27.

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