The hippocampal physiology of approaching middle-age: Early indicators of change



Age-related cognitive decline presents serious lifestyle challenges, and anatomical changes to the hippocampus are often implicated in clinical conditions later in life. However, relatively little is known about how hippocampal physiology is altered in the transition to middle-age, when early detection may offer the best opportunity for successful treatment. High-yield extracellular recording is a powerful tool for understanding brain function in freely moving animals at single-cell resolution and with millisecond precision. We used this technique to characterize changes to hippocampal physiology associated with maturation in 35-week-old rats. Combining a series of behavioral tasks with recordings of large numbers of neurons, local field potentials (LFP), and network patterns of activation, we were able to generate a comprehensive picture based on more than 25 different assays for each subject. Notable changes associated with aging included increased firing rates in interneurons, reduced LFP power but increased frequency in the 4–12 Hz theta band, and impairment in hippocampal pattern-separation for different environments. General properties of pyramidal cell firing and spatial map integrity were preserved. There was no impairment in theta phase-precession, experience-dependent place field expansion, or sleep reactivation of waking network patterns. There were however changes in foraging strategy and behavioral responses to the introduction of a novel environment. Taken together the results reveal a diverse pattern of changes which are of increasing relevance in an aging population. They also highlight areas where high-yield electrophysiological assays can be used to provide the sensitivity and throughput required for pre-clinical drug-discovery programs. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.