Building Memories: Sparse Coding and Learning of Associations by Single Neurons in the Human Brain

Concept cells in the human medial temporal lobe (MTL) respond selectively to pictures of specific individuals and places. In this talk I will discuss two issues. First, I will show how the identification and characterization of different MTL neuron types recorded in vivo give us some clues on the underlying mechanisms leading to high stimulus selectivity. Second, I will show that some of these concept cells participate in memory circuits. For this, I will present results on a recent experiment in which we recorded the activity of MTL neurons in neurosurgical patients while they learned new associations. Pairs of unrelated pictures, one of a person and another of a place, were used to construct a meaningful association modeling the episodic memory of meeting a person in a particular place. We found that a large proportion of responsive neurons expanded their selectivity to encode these specific associations within a few trials and even after one trial: cells initially responsive to one picture started firing to the associated one but not to others. Our results provide a key neural substrate for the rapid inception of associations that is crucial for the formation of episodic memories.

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