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PLoS Comput Biol. 2012;8(9):e1002681. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002681. Epub 2012 Sep 13.

Stress-induced impairment of a working memory task: role of spiking rate and spiking history predicted discharge.

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  • 1University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.


Stress, pervasive in society, contributes to over half of all work place accidents a year and over time can contribute to a variety of psychiatric disorders including depression, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Stress impairs higher cognitive processes, dependent on the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and that involve maintenance and integration of information over extended periods, including working memory and attention. Substantial evidence has demonstrated a relationship between patterns of PFC neuron spiking activity (action-potential discharge) and components of delayed-response tasks used to probe PFC-dependent cognitive function in rats and monkeys. During delay periods of these tasks, persistent spiking activity is posited to be essential for the maintenance of information for working memory and attention. However, the degree to which stress-induced impairment in PFC-dependent cognition involves changes in task-related spiking rates or the ability for PFC neurons to retain information over time remains unknown. In the current study, spiking activity was recorded from the medial PFC of rats performing a delayed-response task of working memory during acute noise stress (93 db). Spike history-predicted discharge (SHPD) for PFC neurons was quantified as a measure of the degree to which ongoing neuronal discharge can be predicted by past spiking activity and reflects the degree to which past information is retained by these neurons over time. We found that PFC neuron discharge is predicted by their past spiking patterns for nearly one second. Acute stress impaired SHPD, selectively during delay intervals of the task, and simultaneously impaired task performance. Despite the reduction in delay-related SHPD, stress increased delay-related spiking rates. These findings suggest that neural codes utilizing SHPD within PFC networks likely reflects an additional important neurophysiological mechanism for maintenance of past information over time. Stress-related impairment of this mechanism is posited to contribute to the cognition-impairing actions of stress.

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