Learning the spatial organization of the environment is essential for most animals' survival. This requires the animal to derive allocentric spatial information from egocentric sensory and motor experience. The neural mechanisms underlying this transformation are mostly unknown. We addressed this problem in electric fish, which can precisely navigate in complete darkness and whose brain circuitry is relatively simple. We conducted the first neural recordings in the preglomerular complex, the thalamic region exclusively connecting the optic tectum with the spatial learning circuits in the dorsolateral pallium. While tectal topographic information was mostly eliminated in preglomerular neurons, the time-intervals between object encounters were precisely encoded. We show that this reliable temporal information, combined with a speed signal, can permit accurate estimation of the distance between encounters, a necessary component of path-integration that enables computing allocentric spatial relations. Our results suggest that similar mechanisms are involved in sequential spatial learning in all vertebrates.
Keywords: electrosensation; neuroscience; path integration; renewal process; spike frequency adaptation; thalamus; time-coding.
© 2018, Wallach et al.