The Neural Basis of a Cognitive Map

by Roderick McKinlay Grieves

Institution: University of Stirling
Year: 2015
Keywords: cognitive map; spatial learning; place cells; hippocampus; shortcutting; spatial inference; trajectory dependent; goal dependent; context dependent; response; place field repetition; multicompartment environment; path equivalence; head direction; boundary vector cell; border cell; grid cell; fragmentation; parallel; radial; cognition; memory
Record ID: 1408586
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/1893/21878


It has been proposed that as animals explore their environment they build and maintain a cognitive map, an internal representation of their surroundings (Tolman, 1948). We tested this hypothesis using a task designed to assess the ability of rats to make a spatial inference (take a novel shortcut)(Roberts et al., 2007). Our findings suggest that rats are unable to make a spontaneous spatial inference. Furthermore, they bear similarities to experiments which have been similarly unable to replicate or support Tolman’s (1948) findings. An inability to take novel shortcuts suggests that rats do not possess a cognitive map (Bennett, 1996). However, we found evidence of alternative learning strategies, such as latent learning (Tolman & Honzik, 1930b) , which suggest that rats may still be building such a representation, although it does not appear they are able to utilise this information to make complex spatial computations. Neurons found in the hippocampus show remarkable spatial modulation of their firing rate and have been suggested as a possible neural substrate for a cognitive map (O'Keefe & Nadel, 1978). However, the firing of these place cells often appears to be modulated by features of an animal’s behaviour (Ainge, Tamosiunaite, et al., 2007; Wood, Dudchenko, Robitsek, & Eichenbaum, 2000). For instance, previous experiments have demonstrated that the firing rate of place fields in the start box of some mazes are predictive of the animal’s final destination (Ainge, Tamosiunaite, et al., 2007; Ferbinteanu & Shapiro, 2003). We sought to understand whether this prospective firing is in fact related to the goal the rat is planning to navigate to or the route the rat is planning to take. Our results provide strong evidence for the latter, suggesting that rats may not be aware of the location of specific goals and may not be aware of their environment in the form of a contiguous map. However, we also found behavioural evidence that rats are aware of specific goal locations, suggesting that place cells in the hippocampus may not be responsible for this representation and that it may reside elsewhere (Hok, Chah, Save, & Poucet, 2013). Unlike their typical activity in an open field, place cells often have multiple place fields in geometrically similar areas of a multicompartment environment (Derdikman et al., 2009; Spiers et al., 2013). For example, Spiers et al. (2013) found that in an environment composed of four parallel compartments, place cells often fired similarly in multiple compartments, despite the active movement of the rat between them. We were able to replicate this phenomenon, furthermore, we were also able to show that if the compartments are arranged in a radial configuration this repetitive firing does not occur as frequently. We suggest that this place field repetition is driven by inputs from Boundary Vector Cells (BVCs) in neighbouring brain regions which are in turn greatly modulated by inputs from the head direction system. This is supported by a novel BVC model of place cell firing which predicts…