The context in which an event occurs plays a large role in how the brain understands and responds to the event. While a key part of context is where we are, contexts can also change within the same space: different meetings are held at different times and with different people in the same room, and a grassy field can be a place of intense competition or a place to relax and gaze at clouds. However, we have little understanding of how the brain sets up and maintains a sense of context.
A region of the brain called the lateral entorhinal cortex (LEC) responds to events as they happen, but may also maintain a record of past experiences, and helps us to learn new associations between events. To find out how LEC neurons might represent context, Pilkiw et al. measured the activity of individual LEC neurons in rats as they experienced different combinations of events and environments. In each trial, the rats were placed in one of two different rooms and exposed to one of two sensory cues (sound or light) six times, either alone or, to test learning, paired moments later with a mild stimulation to the eyelid. The gaps between the cues lasted from 20 to 40 seconds.
As expected, some LEC neurons responded to the sensory cues, and varied their responses to cues depending on whether or not they were paired with eyelid stimulation. What was much more striking is that almost all cells in the LEC behaved very differently in different contexts, both in response to the cues and also during the long gaps between the cues. This suggests that the LEC provides the brain with information about the circumstances of an event, and may be the reason we expect different events under different circumstances – even if we are in the same place.
We tend to underestimate how much we rely on context to remember events and to guide our behavior. Many disabling health conditions, including addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, are affected by context. For example, people who are trying to overcome drug addiction can often reduce their cravings by avoiding places and situations in which they previously used the drug in question. Understanding how the LEC represents context may therefore help us to develop treatments that target this brain region in order to alter harmful behaviors.
The paper is open access and available here.