Schema cells in the macaque hippocampus

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Science  08 Feb 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6427, pp. 635-639
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav5404

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Abstract concepts in the primate brain

Do primates have neurons that encode the conceptual similarity between spaces that differ by their appearance but correspond to the same mental schema? Baraduc et al. recorded from monkey hippocampal neurons while the animals explored both a familiar environment and a novel virtual environment that shared the same general structure as the familiar environment but displayed never-before-seen landmarks. About one-third of hippocampal cells showed significantly correlated firing for both familiar and novel landscapes. These correlations hinged on space or task elements, rather than on immediate visual information. The functional features of these cells are analogous to human concept cells, which represent the meaning of a specific stimulus rather than its apparent visual properties.

Science, this issue p. 635


Concept cells in the human hippocampus encode the meaning conveyed by stimuli over their perceptual aspects. Here we investigate whether analogous cells in the macaque can form conceptual schemas of spatial environments. Each day, monkeys were presented with a familiar and a novel virtual maze, sharing a common schema but differing by surface features (landmarks). In both environments, animals searched for a hidden reward goal only defined in relation to landmarks. With learning, many neurons developed a firing map integrating goal-centered and task-related information of the novel maze that matched that for the familiar maze. Thus, these hippocampal cells abstract the spatial concepts from the superficial details of the environment and encode space into a schema-like representation.

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