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The importance of the rat hippocampus for learning the structure of visual arrays


Dr D. J. Sanderson, at *current address below.


It has been assumed that the integrity of the rodent hippocampus is required for learning the spatial distribution of visual elements in an array. Formally assessing this assumption is, however, far from straightforward as standard tests are amenable to alternative strategies. In order to provide a stringent test of this ability rats were trained on three concurrent visual discriminations in a water tank in which the stimuli in each pair of discriminations contained exactly the same elements but they differed in their spatial arrangement e.g. A|B vs. its mirror image B|A. Such ‘structural’ discriminations are a specific subtype of ‘configural’ or ‘nonlinear’ tasks. Following acquisition half of the rats received hippocampal lesions and all rats were retrained on the structural discriminations. Hippocampal lesions impaired the ability to relearn these ‘structural’ discriminations. In contrast, two other groups of rats with similar hippocampal lesions showed no impairment on relearning two non-structural, configural discriminations: transverse patterning and biconditional learning. All three tasks used the same apparatus, the same stimulus elements, and similar training regimes. Superior performance by the rats with hippocampal lesions during a generalization decrement probe showed that hippocampal lesions had diminished sensitivity to ‘structural’ features on the biconditional task. While the rat hippocampus need not be required for all configural learning, it is important for the special case when the spatial arrangements of the elements are critical. This ability may be a prerequisite for the creation of mental snapshots, which underlie episodic memory.