Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version

December 2004


Published in From Messengers to Molecules: Memories Are Made of These, edited by Gernot Riedel and Bettina Platt. Georgetown, TX (Landes Bioscience/, 2003), pp. 113–124. Copyright © 2004 and Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. Used by permission.


The nicotinic cholinergic system has been widely implicated in mediating learning and/or memory processes in human and nonhuman animals. This chapter highlights various areas of basic research in which stimulation or blockade of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) has been shown to affect an animals performance in a variety of tasks thought to measure learning and memory. For example, under certain conditions, stimulation of nAChRs by nicotine (or other nAChRs agonists) can enhance working memory of primates as measured in a delayed matching-to-sample task. Attentional processes are also improved in rats as indexed by a five-choice serial reaction time task. Further, recent research suggests that stimulation of nAChRs by nicotine likely enhances the incentive salience of stimuli. We elaborate on a model by which this enhancement might occur and suggest that the role of this incentive mechanism in relation to learning and memory processes requires more empirical attention. Finally, there appears to be overlap in the processes by which nAChRs affect learning and memory. That is, enhanced incentive salience might be responsible for the increased attentional effects of nicotine, or vice versa. Subsequent research needs to refi ne the behavioral techniques so as better dissociate, if required, these mechanisms.