Although most observers agree that the hippocampus has a critical role in learning and memory, there remains considerable debate about the precise functional contribution of the hippocampus to these processes. Two of the most influential accounts hold that the primary function of the hippocampus is to generate cognitive maps and to mediate episodic memory processes. The well-documented spatial firing patterns (place fields) of hippocampal neurons in rodents, along with the spatial learning impairments observed with hippocampal damage support the cognitive mapping hypothesis. The amnesia for personally experienced events seen in humans with hippocampal damage and the data of animal models, which show severe memory deficits associated with hippocampal lesions, support the episodic memory account. Although an extensive literature supports each of these hypotheses, a specific contribution of place cells to episodic memory has not been clearly demonstrated. Recent data from our laboratory, together with previous findings, indicate that hippocampal place fields and neuronal responses to task-relevant stimuli are highly sensitive to the context, even when the contexts are defined by abstract task demands rather than the spatial geometry of the environment. On the basis of these findings, it is proposed that place fields reflect a more general context processing function of the hippocampus. Hippocampal context representations could serve to differentiate contexts and prime the relevant memories and behaviors. Since episodic memories, by definition, include information about the time and place where the episode occurred, contextual information is a necessary prerequisite for any episodic memory. Thus, place fields contribute importantly to episodic memory as part of the needed context representations. Additionally, recent findings indicate that hippocampal neurons differentiate contexts at progressively finer levels of detail, suggesting a hierarchical coding scheme which, if combined with temporal information, could provide a means of differentiating memory episodes.
Copyright (c) 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.