Exposure of rodents to an enriched environment (EE) has been shown to reliably increase performance on hippocampus-dependent learning and memory tasks, compared to conspecifics living in standard housing conditions. Here we review the EE-related functional changes in synaptic and cellular properties for neurons in the dentate gyrus and area CA1, as assessed through in vivo and ex vivo electrophysiological approaches. There is a growing consensus of findings regarding the pattern of effects seen. Most prominently, there are changes in cellular excitability and synaptic plasticity in CA1, particularly with short-term and/or periodic exposure to EE. Such changes are much less evident after longer term continuous exposure to EE. In the dentate gyrus, increases in synaptic transmission as well as cell excitability become evident after short-term EE exposure, while the induction of long-term potentiation (LTP) in the dentate is remarkably insensitive, even though it is reliably enhanced by voluntary running. Recent evidence has added a new dimension to the understanding of EE effects on hippocampal electrophysiology by revealing an increased sparsity of place cell representations after long periods of EE treatment. It is possible that such connectivity change is one of the key factors contributing to the enhancement of hippocampus-dependent spatial learning over the long-term, even if there are no obvious changes in other markers such as LTP. This article is part of the Special Issue entitled "Neurobiology of Environmental Enrichment".
Keywords: Enriched environment; Excitability; Hippocampus; Synaptic plasticity; Synaptic transmission.
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