Experiences are represented in the brain by patterns of neuronal activity. Ensembles of neurons representing experience undergo activity-dependent plasticity and are important for learning and recall. They are thus considered cellular engrams of memory. Yet, the cellular events that bias neurons to become part of a neuronal representation are largely unknown. In rodents, turnover of structural connectivity has been proposed to underlie the turnover of neuronal representations and also to be a cellular mechanism defining the time duration for which memories are stored in the hippocampus. If these hypotheses are true, structural dynamics of connectivity should be involved in the formation of neuronal representations and concurrently important for learning and recall. To tackle these questions, we used deep-brain 2-photon (2P) time-lapse imaging in transgenic mice in which neurons expressing the Immediate Early Gene (IEG) Arc (activity-regulated cytoskeleton-associated protein) could be permanently labeled during a specific time window. This enabled us to investigate the dynamics of excitatory synaptic connectivity—using dendritic spines as proxies—of hippocampal CA1 (cornu ammonis 1) pyramidal neurons (PNs) becoming part of neuronal representations exploiting Arc as an indicator of being part of neuronal representations. We discovered that neurons that will prospectively express Arc have slower turnover of synaptic connectivity, thus suggesting that synaptic stability prior to experience can bias neurons to become part of representations or possibly engrams. We also found a negative correlation between stability of structural synaptic connectivity and the ability to recall features of a hippocampal-dependent memory, which suggests that faster structural turnover in hippocampal CA1 might be functional for memory.
Hippocampal neurons with stable excitatory connectivity become part of neuronal representations
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