The extent to which small ensembles of neighboring hippocampal neurons alter their spatial firing patterns concurrently in response to stimulus manipulations was examined in young adult rats as well as in aged rats with and without memory impairment. Recordings from CA1 and CA3 cells were taken as rats performed a spatial radial-maze task that employed prominent distal visual stimuli attached to dark curtains surrounding the maze and local cues on each maze arm provided by inserts with distinctive visual, tactile, and olfactory stimuli. To test the influence of the different stimulus subsets, the distal and local cues were rotated 90 degrees in opposite directions (a Double Rotation). In response to this manipulation, place fields could maintain a fixed position to room coordinates, rotate with either the local or the distal cues, disappear, or new fields could appear. On average 79% of the cells within an ensemble responded in the same way, but only 37% of all ensembles were fully concordant. Typically discordant ensembles had place fields that rotated with one set of cues, whereas the other fields disappeared or new fields appeared. Ensembles in which the place fields rotated in two opposite directions were less frequent in young rats than would be expected by the occurrence of the individual responses, indicating selective competition between directly conflicting representations and ultimate suppression of one. These findings indicate that hippocampal neurons independently encode distinct subsets of the cues in a complex environment, although processing within the hippocampal network may actively reduce the simultaneous representation of conflicting orientation information. This kind of population activity might reflect the higher-order organization of new memories within an established knowledge framework or schema. Concordance was higher in aged memory-impaired rats than in young rats, and the suppression of conflicting representations was absent in these rats. These findings suggest that age-related memory impairment is at least in part associated with a decrease in the scope of information coded and in the coordination of encoded representations.
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