Activation of the basolateral amygdala induces long-term enhancement of specific memory representations in the cerebral cortex

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• The basolateral amygdala strengthens remotely stored memories. • Auditory cortical tuning plasticity serves as memory representations. • Waking rats receive one session of tone paired with BLA stimulation. • Stimulation rapidly induced specific tuning shifts, maintained for at least 3 weeks. • Thus, BLA may strengthen memory by increasing number of its representative cells.

The basolateral amygdala (BLA) modulates memory, particularly for arousing or emotional events, during post-training periods of consolidation. It strengthens memories whose substrates in part or whole are stored remotely, in structures such as the hippocampus, striatum and cerebral cortex. However, the mechanisms by which the BLA influences distant memory traces are unknown, largely because of the need for identifiable target mnemonic representations. Associative tuning plasticity in the primary auditory cortex (A1) constitutes a well-characterized candidate specific memory substrate that is ubiquitous across species, tasks and motivational states. When tone predicts reinforcement, the tuning of cells in A1 shifts toward or to the signal frequency within its tonotopic map, producing an over-representation of behaviorally important sounds. Tuning shifts have the cardinal attributes of forms of memory, including associativity, specificity, rapid induction, consolidation and long-term retention and are therefore likely memory representations. We hypothesized that the BLA strengthens memories by increasing their cortical representations. We recorded multiple unit activity from A1 of rats that received a single discrimination training session in which two tones (2.0 s) separated by 1.25 octaves were either paired with brief electrical stimulation (400 ms) of the BLA (CS+) or not (CS−). Frequency response areas generated by presenting a matrix of test tones (0.5–53.82 kHz, 0–70 dB) were obtained before training and daily for 3 weeks post-training. Tuning both at threshold and above threshold shifted predominantly toward the CS+ beginning on Day 1. Tuning shifts were maintained for the entire 3 weeks. Absolute threshold and bandwidth decreased, producing less enduring increases in sensitivity and selectivity. BLA-induced tuning shifts were associative, highly specific and long-lasting. We propose that the BLA strengthens memory for important experiences by increasing the number of neurons that come to best represent that event. Traumatic, intrusive memories might reflect abnormally extensive representational networks due to hyper-activity of the BLA consequent to the release of excessive amounts of stress hormones.

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