The basal ganglia are phylogenetically conserved subcortical nuclei necessary for coordinated motor action and reward learning. Current models postulate that the basal ganglia modulate cerebral cortex indirectly via an inhibitory output to thalamus, bidirectionally controlled by direct- and indirect-pathway striatal projection neurons (dSPNs and iSPNs, respectively). The basal ganglia thalamic output sculpts cortical activity by interacting with signals from sensory and motor systems. Here we describe a direct projection from the globus pallidus externus (GP), a central nucleus of the basal ganglia, to frontal regions of the cerebral cortex (FC). Two cell types make up the GP-FC projection, distinguished by their electrophysiological properties, cortical projections and expression of choline acetyltransferase (ChAT), a synthetic enzyme for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh). Despite these differences, ChAT + cells, which have been historically identified as an extension of the nucleus basalis, as well as ChAT- cells, release the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid) and are inhibited by iSPNs and dSPNs of dorsal striatum. Thus, GP-FC cells comprise a direct GABAergic/cholinergic projection under the control of striatum that activates frontal cortex in vivo. Furthermore, iSPN inhibition of GP-FC cells is sensitive to dopamine 2 receptor signalling, revealing a pathway by which drugs that target dopamine receptors for the treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders can act in the basal ganglia to modulate frontal cortices.
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