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Rat Study Finds Mental Replay of Past Experiences Critical for Learning

Mentally replaying past experiences while awake is essential for making informed choices, suggests a new study using rats.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the researchers blocked learning from — and acting on — past experiences by selectively suppressing replay, encoded as split-second bursts of neuronal activity in the memory hubs of rats performing a maze task.

“It appears to be these ripple-like bursts in electrical activity in the hippocampus that enable us to think about future possibilities based on past experiences and decide what to do,” said Loren Frank, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, who noted that “similar patterns of hippocampus activity have been detected in humans during similar situations.”

Frank and his colleagues had discovered in previous studies that the rhythmic ripple-like activity in the hippocampus coincided with the mental replay of past experiences during lulls in the rats’ activity. The same signal during sleep is known to help consolidate memories, so the researchers hypothesized that these awake ripple states are required for memory-guided decision-making.

To test this in the current study, they selectively suppressed the ripple activity without disturbing other functions, while monitoring any effects on the animals’ performance in a maze task.

The researchers found that individual neurons in certain areas of the hippocampus become associated with a particular place. These place cells fire when the animal is in that place or — it turns out  — is just mentally replaying the experience of being in that place.

In the latest experiment, the rat needed to remember which of two outer arms of a W-shaped maze it had visited previously and alternate between them, visiting the opposite arm after first visiting the center arm, to earn a reward. The ripple activity occurs when rats are inactive during breaks between trials, the researchers said.

Place cells associated with the maze fire in rapid succession and in synchrony with other neurons in the neighborhood. The same place cells fire in the same sequence as they did when the rat first walked through the maze, suggesting that the rat is mentally replaying the earlier experience, but on a much faster time scale, researchers said.

An automatic feedback system shut down place cell firing, via mild electrical stimulation, whenever it detected ripple activity, which also prevented the replay of the maze memory. Without benefit of mental replay, rats’ performance on the maze task deteriorated, the researchers report.

The impairment was in the animals’ spatial working memory — their ability to link immediate and earlier past experience to the reward. This ability was required to correctly decide which outside arm to visit after exiting the center arm during outbound trials, Frank explained.

The researchers propose that awake replay in the hippocampus provides information about past locations and future options to the brain’s executive hub, the prefrontal cortex, which learns the alternation rule and applies it to guide behavior.

Even though the replay in rats last just a fraction of a second, Frank noted that they are not unlike our own experience of memories, which tend to compress often lengthy events into the highlights of what happened to us.

“We think the brain is using these same ripple-like bursts for many things,” he said. “It’s using them for retrieving memories, exploring possibilities — day-dreaming — and for strengthening memories.”

Source: National Institutes of Health

Rat Study Finds Mental Replay of Past Experiences Critical for Learning

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Rat Study Finds Mental Replay of Past Experiences Critical for Learning. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 10 May 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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