A central tenet of systems neuroscience is that the mammalian hippocampus provides a cognitive map of the environment. This view is supported by the finding of place cells, neurons whose firing is tuned to specific locations in an animal’s environment, within this brain region. Recent work, however, has shown that these cells repeat their firing fields across visually identical maze compartments [1, 2]. This repetition is not observed if these compartments face different directions, suggesting that place cells use a directional input to differentiate otherwise similar local environments [3, 4]. A clear candidate for this input is the head direction cell system. To test this, we disrupted the head direction cell system by lesioning the lateral mammillary nuclei and then recorded place cells as rats explored multiple, connected compartments, oriented in the same or in different directions. As shown previously, we found that place cells in control animals exhibited repeated fields in compartments arranged in parallel, but not in compartments facing different directions. In contrast, the place cells of animals with lesions of the head direction cell system exhibited repeating fields in both conditions. Thus, directional information provided by the head direction cell system appears essential for the angular disambiguation by place cells of visually identical compartments.
- place cells
- head direction cells