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Neurobiol Learn Mem. 1998 Jul-Sep;70(1-2):44-61.

Molecular, cellular, and neuroanatomical substrates of place learning.

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  • 1Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, New York 11724, USA.


Learning and remembering the location of food resources, predators, escape routes, and immediate kin is perhaps the most essential form of higher cognitive processing in mammals. Two of the most frequently studied forms of place learning are spatial learning and contextual conditioning. Spatial learning refers to an animal's capacity to learn the location of a reward, such as the escape platform in a water maze, while contextual conditioning taps into an animal's ability to associate specific places with aversive stimuli, such as an electric shock. Recently, transgenic and gene targeting techniques have been introduced to the study of place learning. In contrast with the abundant literature on the neuroanatomical substrates of place learning in rats, very little has been done in mice. Thus, in the first part of this article, we will review our studies on the involvement of the hippocampus in both spatial learning and contextual conditioning. Having demonstrated the importance of the hippocampus to place learning, we will then focus attention on the molecular and cellular substrates of place learning. We will show that just as in rats, mouse hippocampal pyramidal cells can show place specific firing. Then, we will review our evidence that hippocampal-dependent place learning involves a number of interacting physiological mechanisms with distinct functions. We will show that in addition to long-term potentiation, the hippocampus uses a number of other mechanisms, such as short-term-plasticity and changes in spiking, to process, store, and recall information. Much of the focus of this article is on genetic studies of learning and memory (L&M). However, there is no single experiment that can unambiguously connect any cellular or molecular mechanism with L&M. Instead, several different types of studies are required to determine whether any one mechanism is involved in L&M, including (i) the development of biologically based learning models that explain the involvement of a given mechanism in L&M, (ii) lesion experiments (genetics and pharmacology), (iii) direct observations during learning, and (iv) experiments where learning is triggered by turning on the candidate mechanism. We will show how genetic techniques will be key to unraveling the molecular and cellular basis of place learning.

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