Free energy, precision and learning: the role of cholinergic neuromodulation
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AbstractAcetylcholine (ACh) is a neuromodulatory transmitter implicated in perception and learning under uncertainty. This study combined computational simulations and pharmaco-electroencephalography in humans, to test a formulation of perceptual inference based upon the free energy principle. This formulation suggests that ACh enhances the precision of bottom-up synaptic transmission in cortical hierarchies by optimizing the gain of supragranular pyramidal cells. Simulations of a mismatch negativity paradigm predicted a rapid trial-by-trial suppression of evoked sensory prediction error (PE) responses that is attenuated by cholinergic neuromodulation. We confirmed this prediction empirically with a placebo-controlled study of cholinesterase inhibition. Furthermore, using dynamic causal modeling, we found that drug-induced differences in PE responses could be explained by gain modulation in supragranular pyramidal cells in primary sensory cortex. This suggests that ACh adaptively enhances sensory precision by boosting bottom-up signaling when stimuli are predictable, enabling the brain to respond optimally under different levels of environmental uncertainty.