The exact role of the basal ganglia in both the motor and non-motor domains has proven elusive since it is virtually impossible to refer to its function in isolation of cortical, and especially frontal cortical circuits. The result is that we often speak of frontal-striatal circuits and functions but this still leaves us in the dark when trying to specify basal ganglia information processing. A critical review of the data from both basic science and clinical studies suggests that we should break down processing along a temporal continuum, including the domains of context, sequential information processing, and feedback or reinforcement (i.e., the consequences of action). This analysis would cut across other theoretical constructs, such as attention, central executive, memory, and learning functions, traditionally employed in the neuropsychological literature. Under specified behavioral constraint, the basal ganglia can then be seen to be involved in fundamental aspects of attentional control (often covert), in the guidance of the early stages of learning (especially reinforcement-based, but also encoding strategies in explicit paradigms), and in the associative binding of reward to cue salience and response sequences via dopaminergic mechanisms. Parkinson's disease is considered to offer only a limited view of basal ganglia function due to partial striatal depletion of dopamine and the potential involvement of other structures and transmitters in its pathology. It is hoped that the present formulation will suggest new heuristic research strategies for basal ganglia research, permitting a closer link to be established between neurophysiological, functional imaging and neuropsychological paradigms. (JINS, 2003, 9, 103–128.)
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