Large environments reveal the statistical structure governing hippocampal representations

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Science  15 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6198, pp. 814-817
DOI: 10.1126/science.1255635

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Nerve cells displaying extra large spaces

Rats use brain cells called “place” cells to figure out where they are. Rich et al. used mazes or tracks many meters long—the size of rats' ranges in the wild—to investigate how rats represent a very large environment or extended experience in their brain. As novel environments became larger and larger, the rats' brains recruited new place cells. However, no matter how large the environment became, some cells always remained silent, perhaps as a reserve for other environments yet to be visited.

Science, this issue p. 814


The rules governing the formation of spatial maps in the hippocampus have not been determined. We investigated the large-scale structure of place field activity by recording hippocampal neurons in rats exploring a previously unencountered 48-meter-long track. Single-cell and population activities were well described by a two-parameter stochastic model. Individual neurons had their own characteristic propensity for forming fields randomly along the track, with some cells expressing many fields and many exhibiting few or none. Because of the particular distribution of propensities across cells, the number of neurons with fields scaled logarithmically with track length over a wide, ethological range. These features constrain hippocampal memory mechanisms, may allow efficient encoding of environments and experiences of vastly different extents and durations, and could reflect general principles of population coding.

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