Working Paper Article Version 2 This version is not peer-reviewed

Forebrain Cholinergic Signaling: Wired and Phasic, not Tonic, and Causing Behavior

Version 1 : Received: 30 March 2019 / Approved: 1 April 2019 / Online: 1 April 2019 (13:06:48 CEST)
Version 2 : Received: 8 May 2019 / Approved: 9 May 2019 / Online: 9 May 2019 (08:02:59 CEST)

A peer-reviewed article of this Preprint also exists.

Sarter, M.; Lustig, C. Forebrain Cholinergic Signaling: Wired and Phasic, Not Tonic, and Causing Behavior. The Journal of Neuroscience 2020, 40, 712–719, doi:10.1523/jneurosci.1305-19.2019. Sarter, M.; Lustig, C. Forebrain Cholinergic Signaling: Wired and Phasic, Not Tonic, and Causing Behavior. The Journal of Neuroscience 2020, 40, 712–719, doi:10.1523/jneurosci.1305-19.2019.


Previous evidence in support of a slowly acting (scale of 100s of seconds) and volume-transmitted component of cholinergic signaling was based largely on studies using measures of extracellular brain acetylcholine (ACh) levels which required several minutes to generate a single data point and typically employed AChEsterase inhibitors (AChEIs) to foster the measurement of ACh. Moreover, collecting such data points in correlation with relatively stable behavioral states has supported the view that extracellular ACh levels vary at a relatively slow rate. Here we argue that forebrain cholinergic signaling is exclusively phasic (milliseconds to perhaps seconds), unlikely to be volume-transmitted, and that previous neurochemical evidence and associated behavioral correlates may be re-interpreted in terms of integrated phasic cholinergic activity and specific behavioral and cognitive operations. The highly potent catalytic enzyme for ACh, AChE, limits the presence of an ambient extracellular ACh level and thus renders it unlikely that ACh influences target regions via relatively slow changes in extracellular ACh concentrations. Real-time amperometric recordings of cholinergic signaling have suggested a specific function of rapid, phasic or transient cholinergic signaling in attentional contexts. Optogenetic studies support a causal relationship between these transients on behavior. Combined electrochemical and neurophysiological recordings revealed that the powerful behavioral control by cholinergic transients involves the generation of high-frequency oscillations. Such oscillations are thought to recruit efferent circuitry to (re)activate dormant task sets. Evidence showing the impact of genetic variations of the capacity of cholinergic synapses likewise can be interpreted in terms of their impact on the ability to sustain generation of repeated phasic cholinergic signals, as opposed to effects on ambient ACh levels. Further, while notions of slowly-changing, sleep stage-associated variations in extracellular ACh levels and their functions are widely accepted, the evidence is in fact limited. An alternative hypothesis offers a role for high-frequency cholinergic transient signaling during REM sleep. By employing a theoretical framework that focuses on the phasic and causative characteristics and functions of cholinergic signaling, results from human cognitive neuroscience studies of cholinergic function may be substantially clarified and simplified. Compared to the current treatment of cholinergic deficits using AChEIs, the conceptualization of forebrain cholinergic signaling as wired, phasic, and causative predicts that drugs that either rescue transient presynaptic signaling or amplify or rescue the postsynaptic impact of phasic signals will be more efficacious in treating age- and dementia-related cognitive and cognitive-motor disorders.


acetylcholine; tonic; phasic; attention; cognition


Social Sciences, Behavior Sciences

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