Perturbing neural feedback loops to understand the relationships of their parts

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The basal ganglia are four sub-cortical nuclei associated with motor control and reward learning. They are part of numerous larger mostly segregated loops where the basal ganglia receive inputs from

The basal ganglia are four sub-cortical nuclei associated with motor control and reward learning. They are part of numerous larger mostly segregated loops where the basal ganglia receive inputs from specific regions of cortex. Converging on these inputs are dopaminergic neurons that alter their firing based on received and/or predicted rewarding outcomes of a behavior. The basal ganglia's output feeds through the thalamus back to the areas of the cortex where the loop originated. Understanding the dynamic interactions between the various parts of these loops is critical to understanding the basal ganglia's role in motor control and reward based learning. This work developed several experimental techniques that can be applied to further study basal ganglia function. The first technique used micro-volume injections of low concentration muscimol to decrease the firing rates of recorded neurons in a limited area of cortex in rats. Afterwards, an artificial cerebrospinal fluid flush was injected to rapidly eliminate the muscimol's effects. This technique was able to contain the effects of muscimol to approximately a 1 mm radius volume and limited the duration of the drug effect to less than one hour. This technique could be used to temporarily perturb a small portion of the loops involving the basal ganglia and then observe how these effects propagate in other connected regions. The second part applied self-organizing maps (SOM) to find temporal patterns in neural firing rate that are independent of behavior. The distribution of detected patterns frequency on these maps can then be used to determine if changes in neural activity are occurring over time. The final technique focused on the role of the basal ganglia in reward learning. A new conditioning technique was created to increase the occurrence of selected patterns of neural activity without utilizing any external reward or behavior. A pattern of neural activity in the cortex of rats was selected using an SOM. The pattern was then reinforced by being paired with electrical stimulation of the medial forebrain bundle triggering dopamine release in the basal ganglia. Ultimately, this technique proved unsuccessful possibly due to poor selection of the patterns being reinforced.