You can probably recall where you left your car this morning without too much trouble. But assuming you use the same busy parking lot every day, can you remember which space you parked in yesterday? Or the day before that? Most people find this difficult not because they cannot remember what happened two or three days ago, but because it requires distinguishing between very similar memories. The car, the parking lot, and the time of day were the same on each occasion. So how do you remember where you parked this morning? This ability to distinguish between memories of similar events depends on a brain region called the hippocampus. A subregion of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus generates different patterns of activity in response to events that are similar but distinct. This process is called pattern separation, and it helps ensure that you do not look for your car in yesterday’s parking space.
Pattern separation in the dentate gyrus is thought to involve a form of negative feedback called feedback inhibition, a phenomenon where the output of a process acts to limit or stop the same process. To test this idea, Braganza et al. studied feedback inhibition in the dentate gyrus of mice, before building a computer model simulating the inhibition process and supplying the model with two types of realistic input. The first consisted of low-frequency theta brainwaves, which occur, for instance, in the dentate gyrus when animals explore their environment. The second consisted of higher frequency gamma brainwaves, which occur, for example, when animals experience something new. Testing the model showed that feedback inhibition contributes to pattern separation with both theta and gamma inputs. However, pattern separation is stronger with gamma input. This suggests that high frequency brainwaves in the hippocampus could help animals distinguish new events from old ones by promoting pattern separation. Various brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and epilepsy, involve changes in the dentate gyrus and altered brain rhythms. The current findings could help reveal how these changes contribute to memory impairments and to a reduced ability to distinguish similar experiences.
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