A quantitative analysis of context-dependent remapping of medial frontal cortex neurons and ensembles

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The frontal cortex has been implicated in a number of cognitive and motivational processes, but understanding how individual neurons contribute to these processes is particularly challenging as they respond to a broad array of events (multiplexing) in a manner that can be dynamically modulated by the task context, i.e., adaptive coding (Duncan, 2001). Fundamental questions remain, such as how the flexibility gained through these mechanisms is balanced by the need for consistency and how the ensembles of neurons are coherently shaped by task demands. In the present study, ensembles of medial frontal cortex neurons were recorded from rats trained to perform three different operant actions either in two different sequences or two different physical environments. Single neurons exhibited diverse mixtures of responsivity to each of the three actions and these mixtures were abruptly altered by context/sequence switches. Remarkably, the overall responsivity of the population remained highly consistent both within and between context/sequences because the gains versus losses were tightly balanced across neurons and across the three actions. These data are consistent with a reallocation mixture model in which individual neurons express unique mixtures of selectivity for different actions that become reallocated as task conditions change. However, because the allocations and reallocations are so well balanced across neurons, the population maintains a low but highly consistent response to all actions. The frontal cortex may therefore balance consistency with flexibility by having ensembles respond in a fixed way to task-relevant actions while abruptly reconfiguring single neurons to encode “actions in context.” © 2016 the authors.

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