Modification of the discharge of vagal cardiac neurons during learned heart rate change

Science  16 Oct 1981:
Vol. 214, Issue 4518, pp. 345-347
DOI: 10.1126/science.7280698


Visually conditioned heart rate change in the pigeon has been developed as a vertebrate model system for the cellular neurophysiological analysis of associative learning. In previous studies of the "final common path," it was shown that both the vagal and sympathetic cardiac innervations contribute to this response. The present experiments indicate that, prior to any behavioral training, the visual stimulus elicits a small decrease in the discharge of vagal cardiac neurons. During conditioning, this stimulus evokes a progressively greater decrease in discharge that parallels the acquisition of the conditioned cardioacceleration. In contrast, nonassociative control animals show habituation of the initial decrease in discharge. These data confirm the involvement of the vagal cardiac innervation in conditioned heart rate change, indicate that the vagal innervation acts synergistically with the sympathetic to produce cardioacceleration, and suggest that a short-latency pathway mediates the conditioned response.