Firing characteristics of deep layer neurons in prefrontal cortex in rats performing spatial working memory tasks

Min W. Jung, Yulin Qin, Bruce L. McNaughton, Carol A. Barnes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

253 Scopus citations


Single cells were recorded with 'tetrodes' in regions of the rat medial prefrontal cortex, including those which are targets of hippocampal afferents, while rats were performing three different behavioral tasks: (i) an eight-arm radial maze, spatial working memory task, (ii) a figure-eight track, delayed spatial alternation task, and (iii) a random food search task in a square chamber. Among 187 recorded units, very few exhibited any evidence of place-specific firing on any of the behavioral tasks, except to the extent that different spatial locations were related to distinct phases of the task. Furthermore, no prefrontal unit showed unambiguous spatially dependent delay activity that might mediate working memory for spatial locations. Rather, the cells exhibited diverse correlates that were generally associated with the behavioral requirements of performing the task. This included firing related to intertrial intervals, onset or end of trials, selection of specific arms on the eight-arm radial maze, delay periods, approach to or departure from goals, and selection of paths on the figure- eight track. Although a small number of cells showed similar behavioral correlates across tasks, the majority of cells showed no consistent correlate when recorded across multiple tasks. Furthermore, some units did not exhibit altered firing patterns in any of the three tasks, while others showed changes in firing that were not consistently related to specific behaviors or task components. These results are in agreement with previous lesion and behavioral studies in rats that suggest a prefrontal cortical role in encoding 'rules' (i.e. structural features) or behavioral sequences within a task but not in encoding allocentric spatial information. Given that the hippocampal projection to this cortical region is capable of undergoing LTP, our data lead to the hypothesis that the role of this projection is not to impose spatial representations upon prefrontal activity, but to provide a mechanism for learning the spatial context in which particular behaviors are appropriate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)437-450
Number of pages14
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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