Interactions between location and task affect the spatial and directional firing of hippocampal neurons

Etan J. Markus, Yu Lin Qin, Brian Leonard, William E. Skaggs, Bruce L. McNaughton, Carol A. Barnes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

473 Scopus citations


When rats forage for randomly dispersed food in a high walled cylinder the firing of their hippocampal 'place' cells exhibits little dependence on the direction faced by the rat. On radial arm mazes and similar tasks, place cells are strongly directionally selective within their fields. These tasks differ in several respects, including the visual environment, configuration of the traversable space, motor behavior (e.g., linear and angular velocities), and behavioral context (e.g., presence of specific, consistent goal locations within the environment). The contributions of these factors to spatial and directional tuning of hippocampal neurons was systematically examined in rats performing several tasks in either an enriched or a sparse visual environment, and on different apparati. Place fields were more spatially and directionally selective on a radial maze than on an open, circular platform, regardless of the visual environment. On the platform, fields were more directional when the rat searched for food at fixed locations, in a stereotypic and directed manner, than when the food was scattered randomly. Thus, it seems that place fields are more directional when the animal is planning or following a route between points of special significance. This might be related to the spatial focus of the rat's attention (e.g., a particular reference point). Changing the behavioral task was also accompanied by a change in firing location in about one-third of the cells. Thus, hippocampal neuronal activity appears to encode a complex interaction between locations, their significance and the behaviors the rat is called upon to execute.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7079-7094
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1995


  • cognitive map
  • directionality
  • navigation
  • place cells
  • place fields
  • spatial orientation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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