Complex cognitive functions, such as learning and memory, arise from the interaction of multiple brain regions that comprise functional circuits and different components of these circuits make unique contributions to learning. The hippocampus and the retrosplenial cortex (RSC) are anatomically interconnected and both regions are involved in learning and memory. Previous studies indicate that the hippocampus exhibits unique firing patterns for different contexts and that RSC neurons selectively respond to cues that predict reinforcement or the need for a behavioral response, suggesting a hippocampal role in encoding contexts and an RSC role in encoding behaviorally significant cues. To test this, we simultaneously recorded hippocampal and RSC neuronal activity as rats learned to discriminate two behavioral contexts. The rats learned to approach the east arm of a plus maze for reward during the first half of each session and to approach the west arm during the second half. The "go east" and "go west" conditions constitute distinct behavioral contexts, which were cued by the reward location. Neurons in both regions developed highly context-specific responses as subjects learned to discriminate the contexts, but the response patterns differed in the two brain regions. Consistent with a context processing role, hippocampal neurons developed context-specific responses to a variety of task stimuli and events. In contrast, RSC neurons only developed context-specific responses to the reward location, which served as the context identifying cue. These results suggest that the hippocampus and RSC play distinct, but complimentary roles in mediating context appropriate memories and behaviors.
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