Perirhinal cortex supports tactual discrimination tasks with increasing levels of complexity: Retrograde effect

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Recent studies have suggested that the perirhinal cortex (Prh) supports representations of feature conjunctions in the visual modality during the acquisition/encoding of complex discriminations. To extend this idea to other sensory modalities and to another stage of the discrimination process, we studied the effect of Prh lesions on the expression of a series of tactual discrimination tasks learned preoperatively. These tasks differed from one another in the degree of feature overlap of the stimuli and in the difficulty of the task. During pre- and post-operative testing phases, rats had to discriminate among 3 stimuli simultaneously exposed in 3 arms of a 4-arm plus-shaped maze. Prh-damaged rats showed a profound impairment in the expression of tactual discrimination tasks when the stimuli had a high or intermediate degree of feature ambiguity, but not when they had a low degree of ambiguity (experiments 1a–1c). In order to experimentally dissociate between subregions within the medial temporal lobe, experiment 2 was conducted to show that hippocampal lesions did not cause any impairment in task expression even when the stimuli had a high degree of feature ambiguity. When the tactual discrimination tasks used simple/individual nonoverlapping features of the stimuli (size), Prh lesions did not affect the expression of these discriminations despite the high level of difficulty of these tasks (experiments 3a and 3b). These findings suggest that, in the somatosensory modality, the Prh plays an essential role in the processing of complex stimuli with overlapping features but not in simple tactual discriminations. Furthermore, the Prh is necessary not just during acquisition but also during expression/performance of the discrimination task.

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