Overlap among Spatial Memories Triggers Repulsion of Hippocampal Representations

Curr Biol. 2017 Aug 7;27(15):2307-2317.e5. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.06.057. Epub 2017 Jul 20.


Across the domains of spatial navigation and episodic memory, the hippocampus is thought to play a critical role in disambiguating (pattern separating) representations of overlapping events. However, it is not fully understood how and why hippocampal patterns become separated. Here, we test the idea that event overlap triggers a "repulsion" among hippocampal representations that develops over the course of learning. Using a naturalistic route-learning paradigm and spatiotemporal pattern analysis of human fMRI data, we found that hippocampal representations of overlapping routes gradually diverged with learning to the point that they became less similar than representations of non-overlapping events. In other words, the hippocampus not only disambiguated overlapping events but formed representations that "reversed" the objective similarity among routes. This finding, which was selective to the hippocampus, is not predicted by standard theoretical accounts of pattern separation. Critically, because the overlapping route stimuli that we used ultimately diverged (so that each route contained overlapping and non-overlapping segments), we were able to test whether the reversal effect was selective to the overlapping segments. Indeed, once overlapping routes diverged (eliminating spatial and visual similarity), hippocampal representations paradoxically became relatively more similar. Finally, using a novel analysis approach, we show that the degree to which individual hippocampal voxels were initially shared across route representations was predictive of the magnitude of learning-related separation. Collectively, these findings indicate that event overlap triggers a repulsion of hippocampal representations-a finding that provides critical mechanistic insight into how and why hippocampal representations become separated.

Keywords: episodic memory; fMRI; hippocampus; memory interference; orthogonalization; pattern separation; representational similarity; spatial navigation.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Spatial Memory*
  • Young Adult