Theta Rhythm of Navigation: Link Between Path Integration and Landmark Navigation, Episodic and Semantic Memory

Hippocampus. 2005;15(7):827-40. doi: 10.1002/hipo.20113.


Five key topics have been reverberating in hippocampal-entorhinal cortex (EC) research over the past five decades: episodic and semantic memory, path integration ("dead reckoning") and landmark ("map") navigation, and theta oscillation. We suggest that the systematic relations between single cell discharge and the activity of neuronal ensembles reflected in local field theta oscillations provide a useful insight into the relationship among these terms. In rats trained to run in direction-guided (1-dimensional) tasks, hippocampal cell assemblies discharge sequentially, with different assemblies active on opposite runs, i.e., place cells are unidirectional. Such tasks do not require map representation and are formally identical with learning sequentially occurring items in an episode. Hebbian plasticity, acting within the temporal window of the theta cycle, converts the travel distances into synaptic strengths between the sequentially activated and unidirectionally connected assemblies. In contrast, place representations by hippocampal neurons in 2-dimensional environments are typically omnidirectional, characteristic of a map. Generation of a map requires exploration, essentially a dead reckoning behavior. We suggest that omnidirectional navigation through the same places (junctions) during exploration gives rise to omnidirectional place cells and, consequently, maps free of temporal context. Analogously, multiple crossings of common junction(s) of episodes convert the common junction(s) into context-free or semantic memory. Theta oscillation can hence be conceived as the navigation rhythm through both physical and mnemonic space, facilitating the formation of maps and episodic/semantic memories.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Clocks / physiology
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Space Perception / physiology
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology
  • Theta Rhythm*