Memories for recent experiences are rich in incidental detail, but with time the brain is thought to extract latent rules and structures common across past experiences. We show that over weeks following the acquisition of two distinct associative memories, neuron firing in the rat prelimbic prefrontal cortex (mPFC) became less selective for perceptual features unique to each association and, with an apparently different time-course, became more selective for common relational features. We further found that during exposure to a novel experimental context, memory expression and neuron selectivity for relational features immediately generalized to the new situation. These neural patterns offer a window into the network-level processes by which the mPFC develops a knowledge structure of the world that can be adaptively applied to new experiences.
Keywords: cortical memory; electrophysiology; memory consolidation; neuroscience; prefrontal cortex; rat.