How do our brains store memories? We now know that this is a complex and dynamic process, involving multiple regions of the brain. A brain region, called the hippocampus, plays an important role in memory formation. While we sleep, the hippocampus works to consolidate information, and eventually creates stable, long-term memories that are then stored in other parts of the brain.
But how does the hippocampus do this? Neuroscientists believe that it can replay the patterns of brain activity that represent particular memories. By repeatedly doing this while we sleep, the hippocampus can then direct the transfer of this information to the rest of the brain for storage.
The behaviour of nerve cells in the brain underpins these patterns of brain activity. When a nerve cell is active, it fires tiny electrical impulses that can be detected experimentally. The brain thus represents information in two ways: which nerve cells are active and when (sequential patterns); and how active the nerve cells are (how fast they fire electrical impulses or firing rate). For example, when an animal moves from one location to another, special place cells in the hippocampus become active in a distinct sequence. Depending on the context, they will also fire faster or slower.
We know that the hippocampus can replay sequential patterns of nerve cell activity during memory consolidation, but whether it can also replay the firing rates associated with a particular experience is still unknown. Tirole, Huelin Gorriz et al. set out to determine if the hippocampus could also preserve the information encoded by firing rate during replay.
In the experiments, rats explored two different environments that they had not seen before. The activity of the rats’ place cells was recorded before and after they explored, and also later while they were sleeping. Analysis of the recordings revealed that during replay, the rats’ hippocampi could indeed reproduce both the sequential patterns of activity and the firing rate of the place cells. It also confirmed that each environment was associated with unique firing rates – in other words, the firing rates were memory-specific.
These results contribute to our understanding of how the hippocampus represents and processes information about our experiences. More broadly, they also shed new light on how the brain lays down memories, by revealing a key part of the mechanism that it uses to consolidate that information.