Sequential Firing Codes for Time in Rodent Medial Prefrontal Cortex

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A subset of hippocampal neurons, known as “time cells” fire sequentially for circumscribed periods of time within a delay interval. We investigated whether medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) also contains time cells and whether their qualitative properties differ from those in the hippocampus and striatum. We studied the firing correlates of neurons in the rodent mPFC during a temporal discrimination task. On each trial, the animals waited for a few seconds in the stem of a T-maze. A subpopulation of units fired in a sequence consistently across trials for a circumscribed period during the delay interval. These sequentially activated time cells showed temporal accuracy that decreased as time passed as measured by both the width of their firing fields and the number of cells that fired at a particular part of the interval. The firing dynamics of the time cells was significantly better explained with the elapse of time than with the animals’ position and velocity. The findings observed here in the mPFC are consistent with those previously reported in the hippocampus and striatum, suggesting that the sequentially activated time cells are not specific to these areas, but are part of a common representational motif across regions.

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