Neuroscientists identify role of basolateral amygdala neurons: New study shows basolateral amygdala neurons in rats respond to and remember ethological stimuli

The basolateral amygdala (BLA) is a region of the brain that has been almost exclusively studied in the context of fear and emotion. It’s only recently that researchers have begun to wonder if the BLA might play a more important and primary role in memory and behavior. Yet, almost nothing is known about the neural activity of the BLA during naturalistic behavior.

To answer these questions, neuroscientists at UCL’s Sainsbury Wellcome Center observed neural activity in this region of the brain as rats freely engaged with a variety of different ethological stimuli. Interactions with ethological stimuli are relevant to animal survival and gene propagation, and include food, prey, and conspecifics. In a new study, published today in Cell reportsresearchers demonstrate strong responses to these classes of events in BLA.

The naturalistic stimuli in this study were important to the animals in their daily lives, and the rats were naturally curious to interact with them. They included complex multisensory stimuli like male and female rats, food, and a moving toy mouse. “Traditionally, research has focused on studying BLA in rats during trained tasks. Instead, we wanted to observe neural activity while the rats were behaving freely to see if we could find a primary role for the BLA during natural behavior that could link previous areas of research,” said Cristina Mazuski, researcher at Sainsbury Wellcome Center’s O’Keefe Laboratory and lead author of the paper.

Using Neuropixels, Mazuski and O’Keefe simultaneously recorded hundreds of neurons in the rat BLA and correlated single-celled neuronal activity with complex behavior to identify different classes of cells within the BLA that respond to ethological stimuli. They identified and described two new categories of cells in the BLA; an event-specificneurons, which responded to only one of the four classes of stimuli, and panreactive neurons, which responded equally well to most or all stimuli.

Strikingly, 1/3 of the cells showed an active memory response: not only did the neural response last throughout the event, but it continued after the event ended for several minutes. The authors speculate that these subsequent responses could act as a memory system telling the rest of the brain that an important event has just occurred and perhaps alerting other areas of the brain to store information about others. aspects of the event and the circumstances surrounding it.

Commenting on these aspects of the findings, Professor O’Keefe, the paper’s lead author, said: “These findings position the basolateral amygdala at the center of the social/ethological brain and open up a whole research agenda into what d Other naturally occurring stimuli are of interest to the rest of the (normally silent) BLA cells.They also draw our attention to the memory functions of the amygdala which have not, to date, received sufficient attention.

Because the researchers were recording from many neurons simultaneously using Neuropixels probes, they were also able to examine circuit connectivity. By exploring the correlated activity between different single neurons, they could infer the flow of information from more specific neurons such as those that respond to female rats or food to less specific panresponsive neurons.

“This first study opens many avenues for future research. The next steps are to determine what the responses are sensitive to, how robust they are, and to confirm whether they play a role in memory,” concluded Cristina.

This research has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under Marie-Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 840562 awarded to Cristina Mazuski, from the Sainsbury Wellcome Center Core Grant of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and Wellcome Trust (090843/F/09/Z) and Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellowship (Wt203020/z/16/z) to John O’Keefe.

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