Cerebellar granule cells encode the expectation of reward

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Abstract

The human brain contains approximately 60 billion cerebellar granule cells1, which outnumber all other brain neurons combined. Classical theories posit that a large, diverse population of granule cells allows for highly detailed representations of sensorimotor context, enabling downstream Purkinje cells to sense fine contextual changes2,3,4,5,6. Although evidence suggests a role for the cerebellum in cognition7,8,9,10, granule cells are known to encode only sensory11,12,13and motor14context. Here, using two-photon calcium imaging in behaving mice, we show that granule cells convey information about the expectation of reward. Mice initiated voluntary forelimb movements for delayed sugar-water reward. Some granule cells responded preferentially to reward or reward omission, whereas others selectively encoded reward anticipation. Reward responses were not restricted to forelimb movement, as a Pavlovian task evoked similar responses. Compared to predictable rewards, unexpected rewards elicited markedly different granule cell activity despite identical stimuli and licking responses. In both tasks, reward signals were widespread throughout multiple cerebellar lobules. Tracking the same granule cells over several days of learning revealed that cells with reward-anticipating responses emerged from those that responded at the start of learning to reward delivery, whereas reward-omission responses grew stronger as learning progressed. The discovery of predictive, non-sensorimotor encoding in granule cells is a major departure from the current understanding of these neurons and markedly enriches the contextual information available to postsynaptic Purkinje cells, with important implications for cognitive processing in the cerebellum.

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