Memories are an important part of how we think, understand the world around us, and plan out future actions. In the brain, memories are thought to be stored in a region called the hippocampus. When memories are formed, neurons store events that occur around the same time together. This might explain why often, in the brains of animals, the activity associated with retrieving memories is not just a snapshot of what happened at a specific moment-- it can also include information about what the animal might experience next. This can have a clear utility if animals use memories to predict what they might experience next and plan out future actions.
Mathematically, this notion of predictiveness can be summarized by an algorithm known as the successor representation. This algorithm describes what the activity of neurons in the hippocampus looks like when retrieving memories and making predictions based on them. However, even though the successor representation can computationally reproduce the activity seen in the hippocampus when it is making predictions, it is unclear what biological mechanisms underpin this computation in the brain.
Fang et al. approached this problem by trying to build a model that could generate the same activity patterns computed by the successor representation using only biological mechanisms known to exist in the hippocampus. First, they used computational methods to design a network of neurons that had the biological properties of neural networks in the hippocampus. They then used the network to simulate neural activity. The results show that the activity of the network they designed was able to exactly match the successor representation. Additionally, the data resulting from the simulated activity in the network fitted experimental observations of hippocampal activity in Tufted Titmice.
One advantage of the network designed by Fang et al. is that it can generate predictions in flexible ways,. That is, it canmake both short and long-term predictions from what an individual is experiencing at the moment. This flexibility means that the network can be used to simulate how the hippocampus learns in a variety of cognitive tasks. Additionally, the network is robust to different conditions. Given that the brain has to be able to store memories in many different situations, this is a promising indication that this network may be a reasonable model of how the brain learns.
The results of Fang et al. lay the groundwork for connecting biological mechanisms in the hippocampus at the cellular level to cognitive effects, an essential step to understanding the hippocampus, as well as its role in health and disease. For instance, their network may provide a concrete approach to studying how disruptions to the ways neurons make and break connections can impair memory formation. More generally, better models of the biological mechanisms involved in making computations in the hippocampus can help scientists better understand and test out theories about how memories are formed and stored in the brain.