Many learned behaviors are directed by complex sets of highly specific stimuli or cues. The neural mechanisms mediating learned associations in these behaviors must be capable of storing complex cue information and distinguishing among different learned associations-we call this general concept "mechanistic resolution". For many years, our understanding of the circuitry of these learned behaviors has been based primarily on inactivation of specific cell types or whole brain areas regardless of which neurons were activated during the cue-specific behaviors. However, activation of all cells or specific cell types in a brain area do not have enough mechanistic resolution to encode or distinguish high-resolution learned associations in these behaviors. Instead, these learned associations are likely encoded within specific patterns of sparsely distributed neurons called neuronal ensembles that are selectively activated by the cues. This review article focuses on studies of neuronal ensembles in operant learned responding to obtain food or drug rewards. These studies suggest that the circuitry of operant learned behaviors may need to be re-examined using ensemble-specific manipulations that have the requisite level of mechanistic resolution.
Keywords: learned associations; mechanistic resolution; neuronal ensembles; operant learning.