Context-independent directional cue learning by hippocampal place cells

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In a symmetrical environment possessing no other polarizing visual cues, the spatially localized firing of hippocampal place cells can be primarily orientated by a reliable distal visual stimulus, such as a white cue card. However, if such a directional cue is made unreliable by being frequently moved in full view of the rat, the rat's internal sense of direction comes, over the course of a few days, to control the orientation of place fields instead. We investigated whether this simple form of ‘cue-instability’ learning would transfer to a new context, in which the firing patterns of the place cells become reorganized and in which a new spatial representation is thus active. We found that after cue-instability learning, the ‘remapped’ place field representation in the new environment was also orientated by the internal sense of direction of the rat rather than by the cue card, showing that the cue learning generalized from one context (and hence spatial representation) to another. This contrasts with another kind of place cell learning, in which the cells can acquire the ability to discriminate two spatial locations in one context but do not transfer this discrimination to a new context. We discuss the different effects of context changes on learned place cell activity in terms of the possible architecture of the inputs to place cells.

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