Disorders characterized by disturbed cholinergic signaling, such as schizophrenia, exhibit impaired performance on measures of real-world cost/benefit decision-making. Whether the cholinergic system contributes to the choice deficits observed is currently unknown. We therefore determined the effects of broad-acting agonists and antagonists at the nicotinic and muscarinic receptor on decision making, as measured by the rodent gambling task (rGT). Given the anatomical and functional connectivity of the cholinergic and dopaminergic systems, we also sought to modulate amphetamine's previously reported effect on rGT performance via the cholinergic system.
Male rats were trained on the rGT, during which animals chose from four different options. The optimal strategy on the rGT is to favor options associated with smaller immediate rewards and less punishment/loss. Impulsive action was also measured by recording the number of premature responses made. Performance on the rGT was assessed following acute treatment with the muscarinic receptor agonist oxotremorine, the muscarinic receptor antagonist scopolamine, nicotine, and the nicotinic receptor antagonist mecamylamine. Similar to the effect produced by amphetamine, muscarinic receptor antagonism with scopolamine (0.1mg/kg) impaired decision making, albeit to a lesser degree. Prior muscarinic agonism with oxotremorine was unable to attenuate amphetamine's effects on rGT performance. Oxotremorine, nicotine, and mecamylamine did not affect the choice profile. We therefore conclude that modulation of the muscarinic, but not nicotinic, receptor system can affect decision making under conditions of risk and uncertainty. Such findings contribute to a broader understanding of the cognitive deficits observed in disorders in which cholinergic signaling is compromised.