Timing in the absence of supraspinal input I: Variable, but not fixed, spaced stimulation of the sciatic nerve undermines spinally-mediated instrumental learning

K. M. Baumbauer, K. C. Hoy, J. R. Huie, Abbey Hughes, S. A. Woller, D. A. Puga, B. Setlow, J. W. Grau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Rats with complete spinal transections are capable of acquiring a simple instrumentally trained response. If rats receive shock to one hind limb when the limb is extended (controllable shock), the spinal cord will learn to hold the leg in a flexed position that minimizes shock exposure. If shock is delivered irrespective of leg position, subjects do not exhibit an increase in flexion duration and subsequently fail to learn when tested with controllable shock (learning deficit). Just 6 min of variable intermittent shock produces a learning deficit that lasts 24 h. Evidence suggests that the neural mechanisms underlying the learning deficit may be related to those involved in other instances of spinal plasticity (e.g. windup, long-term potentiation). The present paper begins to explore these relations by demonstrating that direct stimulation of the sciatic nerve also impairs instrumental learning. Six minutes of electrical stimulation (mono- or biphasic direct current [DC]) of the sciatic nerve in spinally transected rats produced a voltage-dependent learning deficit that persisted for 24 h (experiments 1-2) and was dependent on C-fiber activation (experiment 7). Exposure to continuous stimulation did not produce a deficit, but intermittent burst or single pulse (as short as 0.1 ms) stimulation (delivered at a frequency of 0.5 Hz) did, irrespective of the pattern (fixed or variable) of stimulus delivery (experiments 3-6, 8). When the duration of stimulation was extended from 6 to 30 min, a surprising result emerged; shocks applied in a random (variable) fashion impaired subsequent learning whereas shocks given in a regular pattern (fixed spacing) did not (experiments 9-10). The results imply that spinal neurons are sensitive to temporal relations and that stimulation at regular intervals can have a restorative effect.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1030-1047
Number of pages18
Issue number4
StatePublished - Sep 9 2008
Externally publishedYes



  • instrumental learning
  • operant
  • plasticity
  • spinal cord
  • timing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)

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