The emergence of a stable neuronal ensemble from a wider pool of activated neurons in the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex during appetitive learning in mice

Leonie S. Brebner, Joseph J. Ziminski, Gabriella Margetts-Smith, Meike C. Sieburg, Hayley M. Reeve, Thomas Nowotny, Johannes Hirrlinger, Tristan G. Heintz, Leon Lagnado, Shigeki Kato, Kazuto Kobayashi, Leslie A. Ramsey, Catherine N. Hall, Hans S. Crombag, Eisuke Koya

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)
78 Downloads (Pure)


Animals selectively respond to environmental cues associated with food reward to optimize nutrient intake. Such appetitive conditioned stimulus–unconditioned stimulus (CS-US) associations are thought to be encoded in select, stable neuronal populations or neuronal ensembles, which undergo physiological modifications during appetitive conditioning. These ensembles in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) control well-established, cue-evoked food seeking, but the mechanisms involved in the genesis of these ensembles are unclear. Here, we used male Fos-GFP mice that express green fluorescent protein (GFP) in recently behaviorally activated neurons, to reveal how dorsal mPFC neurons are recruited and modified to encode CS-US memory representations using an appetitive conditioning task. In the initial conditioning session, animals did not exhibit discriminated, cue-selective food seeking, but did so in later sessions indicating that a CS-US association was established. Using microprism-based in vivo 2-Photon imaging, we revealed that only a minority of neurons activated during the initial session was consistently activated throughout subsequent conditioning sessions and during cue-evoked memory recall. Notably, using ex vivo electrophysiology, we found that neurons activated following the initial session exhibited transient hyperexcitability. Chemogenetically enhancing the excitability of these neurons throughout subsequent conditioning sessions interfered with the development of reliable cue-selective food seeking, indicated by persistent, nondiscriminated performance. We demonstrate how appetitive learning consistently activates a subset of neurons to form a stable neuronal ensemble during the formation of a CS-US association. This ensemble may arise from a pool of hyperexcitable neurons activated during the initial conditioning session.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Appetitive conditioning endows cues associated with food with the ability to guide food-seeking, through the formation of a food-cue association. Neuronal ensembles in the mPFC control established cue-evoked food-seeking. However, how neurons undergo physiological modifications and become part of an ensemble during conditioning remain unclear. We found that only a minority of dorsal mPFC neurons activated on the initial conditioning session became consistently activated during conditioning and memory recall. These initially activated neurons were also transiently hyperexcitable. We demonstrate the following: (1) how stable neuronal ensemble formation in the dorsal mPFC underlies appetitive conditioning; and (2) how this ensemble may arise from hyperexcitable neurons activated before the establishment of cue-evoked food seeking.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)395 - 410
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jan 2020


  • appetitive conditioning
  • food seeking
  • Fos
  • in vivo imaging
  • neuronal ensembles
  • medial prefrontal cortex


Dive into the research topics of 'The emergence of a stable neuronal ensemble from a wider pool of activated neurons in the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex during appetitive learning in mice'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this