Learned response sequences in cerebellar Purkinje cells [Neuroscience]
Associative learning in the cerebellum has previously focused on single movements. In eyeblink conditioning, for instance, a subject learns to blink at the right time in response to a conditional stimulus (CS), such as a tone that is repeatedly followed by an unconditional corneal stimulus (US). During conditioning, the CS and US are transmitted by mossy/parallel fibers and climbing fibers to cerebellar Purkinje cells that acquire a precisely timed pause response that drives the overt blink response. The timing of this conditional Purkinje cell response is determined by the CS–US interval and is independent of temporal patterns in the input signal. In addition to single movements, the cerebellum is also believed to be important for learning complex motor programs that require multiple precisely timed muscle contractions, such as, for example, playing the piano. In the present work, we studied Purkinje cells in decerebrate ferrets that were conditioned using electrical stimulation of mossy fiber and climbing fiber afferents as CS and US, while alternating between short and long interstimulus intervals. We found that Purkinje cells can learn double pause responses, separated by an intermediate excitation, where each pause corresponds to one interstimulus interval. The results show that individual cells can not only learn to time a single response but that they also learn an accurately timed sequential response pattern.
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