Clone-structured graph representations enable flexible learning and vicarious evaluation of cognitive maps

Nat Commun. 2021 Apr 22;12(1):2392. doi: 10.1038/s41467-021-22559-5.


Cognitive maps are mental representations of spatial and conceptual relationships in an environment, and are critical for flexible behavior. To form these abstract maps, the hippocampus has to learn to separate or merge aliased observations appropriately in different contexts in a manner that enables generalization and efficient planning. Here we propose a specific higher-order graph structure, clone-structured cognitive graph (CSCG), which forms clones of an observation for different contexts as a representation that addresses these problems. CSCGs can be learned efficiently using a probabilistic sequence model that is inherently robust to uncertainty. We show that CSCGs can explain a variety of cognitive map phenomena such as discovering spatial relations from aliased sensations, transitive inference between disjoint episodes, and formation of transferable schemas. Learning different clones for different contexts explains the emergence of splitter cells observed in maze navigation and event-specific responses in lap-running experiments. Moreover, learning and inference dynamics of CSCGs offer a coherent explanation for disparate place cell remapping phenomena. By lifting aliased observations into a hidden space, CSCGs reveal latent modularity useful for hierarchical abstraction and planning. Altogether, CSCG provides a simple unifying framework for understanding hippocampal function, and could be a pathway for forming relational abstractions in artificial intelligence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Markov Chains
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neural Networks, Computer*