Disruption of the head direction cell network impairs the parahippocampal grid cell signal

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Science  20 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6224, pp. 870-874
DOI: 10.1126/science.1259591

Are we heading in the right direction?

Some neurons, called grid cells, discharge at multiple locations to form a regular pattern that represents the animal's environment. These cells use information about the animal's running speed and direction of movement to constantly update its location. The so-called head direction cells provide the direction-of-movement signal. Winter et al. recorded neuronal activity in awake behaving rats. When they disabled the input from the head direction cells, the grid cells lost their normal function. These findings provide experimental confirmation of theoretical predictions that grid cells will no longer exhibit their characteristic firing pattern when the head direction signal is disturbed.

Science, this issue p. 870


Navigation depends on multiple neural systems that encode the moment-to-moment changes in an animal’s direction and location in space. These include head direction (HD) cells representing the orientation of the head and grid cells that fire at multiple locations, forming a repeating hexagonal grid pattern. Computational models hypothesize that generation of the grid cell signal relies upon HD information that ascends to the hippocampal network via the anterior thalamic nuclei (ATN). We inactivated or lesioned the ATN and subsequently recorded single units in the entorhinal cortex and parasubiculum. ATN manipulation significantly disrupted grid and HD cell characteristics while sparing theta rhythmicity in these regions. These results indicate that the HD signal via the ATN is necessary for the generation and function of grid cell activity.

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