Of goals and spatial memory

It’s spring break time here at OSU and many undergrads are driving down to Daytona and Pensacola etc. As they drive through Kentucky and Tennessee, I’m sure they don’t remember much about the drive and the exits once they get to their destination. But, imagine they were driving through Kentucky in search of that glorious elixir, Ale-8-1? Better yet, what if they were assigned to work in Estill county, Kentucky, for a summer selling books door to door? One could imagine that driving through Lexington to get gas would not encode the place as strongly as driving through each of the 6 exits to find the thick green glass bottles of Ale-8-one, the kind that truly insulate that citrusey ginger ale concoction.

Interestingly, the idea that goal representation and motivation play a role in the encoding of spatial memories is still controversial within the neuroscience. I am glad to see scientists rigorously testing the effects of motivation on spatial memory (the hippocampus is the part of the brain that encodes spatial memory, among other things).

The hippocampus contains place cells, which are neurons whose firing frequency increases dramatically when an animal is in a specific location in an environment. This location is known as the place cell’s place field. Reporting in the Journal of Neuroscience, Hok and colleagues show that these cells can also fire when a rat is in an area associated with a particular goal, even if this area is outside a cell’s place field.

It’s probably best to read the whole thing.