Hippocampal theta phase–contingent memory retrieval in delay and trace eyeblink conditioning

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Hippocampal theta oscillations (3–12 Hz) play a prominent role in learning. It has been suggested that encoding and retrieval of memories are supported by different phases of the theta cycle. Our previous study on trace eyeblink conditioning in rabbits suggests that the timing of the conditioned stimulus (CS) in relation to theta phase affects encoding but not retrieval of the memory trace. Here, we directly tested the effects of hippocampal theta phase on memory retrieval in two experiments conducted on adult female New Zealand White rabbits. In Experiment 1, animals were trained in trace eyeblink conditioning followed by extinction, and memory retrieval was tested by presenting the CS at troughs and peaks of the theta cycle during different stages of learning. In Experiment 2, animals were trained in delay conditioning either contingent on a high level of theta or at a random neural state. Conditioning was then followed by extinction conducted either at a random state, contingent on theta trough or contingent on theta peak. Our current results indicate that the phase of theta at CS onset has no effect on the performance of the behavioral learned response at any stage of classical eyeblink conditioning or extinction. In addition, theta-contingent trial presentation does not improve learning during delay eyeblink conditioning. The results are consistent with our earlier findings and suggest that the theta phase alone is not sufficient to affect learning at the behavioral level. It seems that the retrieval of recently acquired memories and consequently performing a learned response is moderated by neural mechanisms other than hippocampal theta.

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