Cellular mechanisms of operant and classical conditioning
The ability to associate a predictive stimulus with a subsequent salient event (i.e., classical conditioning) and the ability to associate an expressed behavior with the consequences (i.e., operant conditioning) allow for a predictive understanding of a changing environment. Although they are operationally distinct, there has been considerable debate whether at some fundamental level classical and operant conditioning are mechanistically distinct or similar. Feeding behavior of Aplysia (i.e., biting) was chosen as the model system and was successfully conditioned with appetitive forms of both operant and classical conditioning. The neuronal circuitry responsible for feeding is well understood and is suitable for cellular analyses, thus providing for a mechanistic comparison between these two forms of associative learning. Neuron B51 is part of the feeding circuitry of Aplysia and is critical for the expression of ingestive behaviors. B51 also is a locus of plasticity following both operant and classical conditioning. Both in vivo and in vitro operant conditioning increased the input resistance and the excitability of B51. No pairing-specific changes in the input resistance were observed following both in vivo and in vitro classical conditioning. However, classical conditioning decreased the excitability of B51. Thus, both operant and classical conditioning modified the threshold level for activation of neuron B51, but in opposite directions, revealing key differences in the cellular mechanisms underlying these two forms of associative learning. Next, the cellular mechanisms underlying operant conditioning were investigated in more detail using a single-cell analogue. The single-cell analogue successfully recapitulated the previous in vivo and in vitro operant conditioning results by increasing the input resistance and the excitability of B51. Both PKA and PKC were necessary for operant conditioning. Dopamine appears to be the transmitter mediating the reinforcement signal in this form of conditioning. A D1 dopamine receptor antibody revealed that the D1receptor localizes to the axon hillock, which is also the region that gives the strongest response when iontophoresing dopamine. The studies presented herein, thus, provide for a greater understanding of the mechanisms underlying both of these forms of associative learning and demonstrate that they likely operate through distinct cellular mechanisms.
Lorenzetti, Frederick D, "Cellular mechanisms of operant and classical conditioning" (2005). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3180674.