Time-dependent, learning-related changes in hippocampal excitability were evaluated by recording from rabbit CA1 pyramidal neurons in slices prepared at various times after acquisition of trace eyeblink conditioning. Increased excitability (reduced postburst afterhyperpolarizations and reduced spike-frequency adaptation) was seen as early as 1 hr after acquisition to behavioral criterion, was maximal in neurons studied 24 hr later, and returned to baseline within 7 d, whereas behavioral performance remained asymptotic for months. Neurons were held at -67 mV to equate voltage-dependent effects. No learning-related effects were observed on input resistance, action-potential amplitude or duration, or resting membrane potential. The excitability changes were learning-specific, because they were not seen in neurons from very slow learning (exhibited < 30% conditioned responses after 15 training sessions) or from pseudoconditioned control rabbits. Neurons from rabbits that displayed asymptotic behavioral performance after long-term retention testing (an additional training session 14 d after learning) were also indistinguishable from control neurons. Thus, the increased excitability of CA1 neurons was not performance- or memory-dependent. Rather, the time course of increased excitability may represent a critical window during which learning-specific alterations in postsynaptic excitability of hippocampal neurons are important for consolidation of the learned association elsewhere in the brain.
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