Hilar mossy cells (MCs) of the dentate gyrus (DG) distinguish the DG from other hippocampal subfields (CA1-3) because there are two glutamatergic cell types in the DG rather than one. Thus, in the DG, the main cell types include glutamatergic granule cells (GCs) and MCs, whereas in CA1-3, the only glutamatergic cell type is the pyramidal cell. In contrast to GCs, MCs are different in morphology, intrinsic electrophysiological properties, afferent input and axonal projections, so their function is likely to be very different from GCs. Why are MCs necessary to the DG? In past studies, the answer has been unclear because MCs not only excite GCs directly but also inhibit them disynaptically, by exciting GABAergic neurons that project to GCs. Results of new studies are discussed that shed light on this issue. These studies take advantage of recently available transgenic mice with Cre recombinase expression mostly in MCs and techniques such as optogenetics and DREADDs (designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs). The recent studies also address in vivo behavioral functions of MCs. Some of the results support past hypotheses whereas others suggest new conceptualizations of how the MCs contribute to DG circuitry and function. While substantial progess has been made, additional research is still needed to clarify the characteristics and functions of these unique cells.
Keywords: CA3; Entorhinal cortex; Granule cell; Hippocampus; Interneuron; Memory; Pattern separation.