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Hippocampal synaptic plasticity: role in spatial learning or the automatic recording of attended experience?

R. G. M. Morris, U. Frey


Allocentric spatial learning can sometimes occur in one trial. The incorporation of information into a spatial representation may, therefore, obey a one–trial correlational learning rule rather than a multi–trial error–correcting rule. It has been suggested that physiological implementation of such a rule could be mediated by N–methyl–D–aspartate (NMDA) receptor–dependent long–term potentiation (LTP) in the hippocampus, as its induction obeys a correlational type of synaptic learning rule. Support for this idea came originally from the finding that intracerebral infusion of the NMDA antagonist AP5 impairs spatial learning, but studies summarized in the first part of this paper have called it into question. First, rats previously given experience of spatial learning in a watermaze can learn a new spatial reference memory task at a normal rate despite an appreciable NMDA receptor blockade. Second, the classical phenomenon of ‘blocking’ occurs in spatial learning. The latter finding implies that spatial learning can also be sensitive to an animal's expectations about reward and so depend on more than the detection of simple spatial correlations.

In this paper a new hypothesis is proposed about the function of hippocampal LTP. This hypothesis retains the idea that LTP subserves rapid one–trial memory, but abandons the notion that it serves any specific role in the geometric aspects of spatial learning. It is suggested that LTP participates in the ‘automatic recording of attended experience’: a subsystem of episodic memory in which events are temporarily remembered in association with the contexts in which they occur. An automatic correlational form of synaptic plasticity is ideally suited to the online registration of context–event associations. In support, it is reported that the ability of rats to remember the most recent place they have visited in a familiar environment is exquisitely sensitive to AP5 in a delay–dependent manner. Moreover, new studies of the lasting persistence of NMDA–dependent LTP, known to require protein synthesis, point to intracellular mechanisms that enable transient synaptic changes to be stabilized if they occur in close temporal proximity to important events. This new property of hippocampal LTP is a desirable characteristic of an event memory system.

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