Information from direct experience and observation of others is integrated in the brain to enable appropriate responses to environmental stimuli. Fear memory can be acquired by observing a conspecific's distress. However, it remains unclear how prior fear observation affects self-experienced fear learning. In this study, we tested whether prior observation of a conspecific receiving contextual fear conditioning affects subsequent self-experienced fear conditioning and how neuronal ensembles represent the integration of the observation and self-experience. Test mice observed demonstrator mice experiencing fear conditioning on day 1 and directly experienced fear conditioning on day 2. Contextual fear memory was tested on day 3. The prior observation of fear conditioning promoted subsequent self-experienced fear conditioning in a hippocampus-dependent manner. We visualized hippocampal neurons that were activated during the observation and self-experience of fear conditioning and found that self-experienced fear conditioning preferentially activated dorsal CA1 neurons that were activated during the observation. When mice observed and directly experienced fear conditioning in different contexts, preferential reactivation was not observed in the CA1, and fear memory was not enhanced. These findings indicate that dorsal CA1 neuronal ensembles that were activated during both the observation and self-experience of fear learning are implicated in the integration of observation and self-experience for strengthening fear memory.
Keywords: CA1; Communication; Fear memory; Memory engram; Mirror neuron; Observational learning; Social behavior.