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J Neurosci. 2010 Sep 1;30(35):11586-604. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0926-10.2010.

Experience-dependent development of coordinated hippocampal spatial activity representing the similarity of related locations.

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McGovern Institute for Brain Research and MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA.


To learn we must identify and remember experiences uniquely but also generalize across experiences to extract common features. Hippocampal place cells can show similar firing patterns across locations, but the functional significance of this repetitive activity and the role of experience and learning in generating it are not understood. We therefore examined rat hippocampal place cell activity in the context of spatial tasks with multiple similar spatial trajectories. We found that, in environments with repeating elements, about half of the recorded place cells showed path-equivalent firing, where individual neurons are active in multiple similar locations. In contrast, place cells from animals performing a similar task in an environment with fewer similar elements were less likely to fire in a path-equivalent manner. Moreover, in the environment with multiple repeating elements, path equivalence developed with experience in the task, and increased path equivalence was associated with increased moment-by-moment correlations between pairs of path-equivalent neurons. As a result, correlated firing among path-equivalent neurons increased with experience. These findings suggest that coordinated hippocampal ensembles can encode generalizations across locations. Thus, path-equivalent ensembles are well suited to encode similarities among repeating elements, providing a framework for associating specific behaviors with multiple locations, while neurons without this repetitive structure maintain a distinct population code.

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