Amnesia for context fear is caused by widespread disruption of hippocampal activity

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2020 Nov;175:107295. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2020.107295. Epub 2020 Aug 18.


The hippocampus plays an essential role in the formation and retrieval of episodic memories in humans and contextual memories in animals. However, amnesia is not always observed when this structure is compromised. To determine why this is the case, we compared the effects of several different circuit manipulations on memory retrieval and hippocampal activity. Mice were first trained on context fear conditioning and then optogenetic and chemogenetic tools were used to alter activity during memory retrieval. We found that retrieval was only impaired when manipulations caused widespread changes (increases or decreases) in hippocampal activity. Widespread increases occurred when pyramidal cells were excited and widespread decreases were found when GABAergic neurons were stimulated. Direct hyperpolarization of excitatory neurons only moderately reduced activity and did not produce amnesia. Surprisingly, widespread decreases in hippocampal activity did not prevent retrieval if they occurred gradually prior to testing. This suggests that intact brain regions can express contextual memories if they are given adequate time to compensate for the loss of the hippocampus.

Keywords: Chemogenetics; Context fear; Hippocampus; Memory; Optogenetics; Retrieval.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Amnesia / physiopathology*
  • Animals
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology*
  • Designer Drugs
  • Fear*
  • GABAergic Neurons / metabolism
  • GABAergic Neurons / physiology
  • Hippocampus / cytology
  • Hippocampus / physiopathology*
  • Memory, Episodic
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Optogenetics
  • Pyramidal Cells / metabolism
  • Pyramidal Cells / physiology
  • Receptors, Drug


  • Designer Drugs
  • Receptors, Drug