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Hippocampus. 2007;17(5):333-7.

Environmental complexity affects contextual fear conditioning following hippocampal lesions in rats.

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Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest Centre, Toronto, Canada.


Contextual fear conditioning has become a benchmark measure for hippocampal function, even though several studies report successful acquisition in hippocampal-damaged rodents. The current study examined whether environmental complexity may account for these discrepancies. We directly compared single-session contextual fear conditioning in rats in a simple vs. complex environment. Hippocampal lesions led to reduced fear conditioning in both contexts, as measured by freezing, but the effect was significantly greater in the complex context. As well, lesions led to generalized fear when the complex context was paired with shock, but not when the simple context was paired. We suggest that the representation of the simple context formed by rats with hippocampal lesions was adequate to support associative learning, but the representation of the complex context, which depended to a greater extent on relational learning, was not. The results were interpreted as consistent with theories of hippocampal function that emphasize its role in integrating multiple stimulus elements in a memory trace.

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