The effects of serotonergic dysfunction induced by treatment with p-chlorophenylalanine (PCPA), an inhibitor of serotonin synthesis, and cholinergic dysfunction induced by scopolamine on the performance of adult rats in the 5-choice serial reaction time task measuring selective attention were studied. Food-deprived rats were trained to detect and respond to brief flashes of light presented randomly in one of five locations, until they reached a stable level of performance (about 4 months). Scopolamine 0.2 mg/kg produced a marked variation in the performance but did not, however, induce any consistent impairment in the discriminative accuracy. Other doses of scopolamine (0.05 and 0.1 mg/kg) or N-methyl-scopolamine 0.2 mg/kg, a peripheral muscarinic receptor antagonist, did not affect discriminative accuracy. Furthermore, scopolamine as well as N-methyl-scopolamine produced a number of other performance deficits, such as significantly decreased overall probability of responding and significantly increased response latencies. PCPA treatment induced an almost total depletion (> 99%) of frontal cortical serotonin and its major metabolite 5-HIAA and reduced the frontal cortical concentrations of noradrenaline (-30%) and dopamine (-42%). During baseline testing conditions, there was a trend for the discriminative accuracy to be decreased by PCPA, although this effect failed to reach significance (P = 0.07). Presenting the stimuli at unpredictable intervals or reducing the intensity of the visual stimulus impaired discriminative accuracy in both PCPA-treated and control rats. The decrease in discriminative accuracy induced by PCPA reached statistical significance when the stimuli were presented faster than normally or the intensity of the visual stimulus was reduced. PCPA treatment did not make the rats more susceptible to the effects of scopolamine on discriminative accuracy. However, PCPA treatment also induced a number of other performance deficits, resulting in a decreased overall tendency to respond. In summary, there is a statistically non-significant trend for the discriminative accuracy to be decreased by PCPA treatment under normal testing conditions, and as the discrimination task is made more difficult (stimulus intensity reduction, presentation of the stimuli at faster than normal rates), the deficit in discriminative accuracy produced by PCPA treatment is revealed. The results suggest a role for brain serotonin in the general organization of behavior.
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