Back in the 1990’s, one of the most intense battlegrounds in systems neuroscience was in monkey posterior parietal cortex. Labs competed to claim what a little strip of cortex called lateral intraparietal area (LIP) really does – decision, movement planning, attention, reward, or all of the above – mostly using single cell recording in behaving monkey. The experiments were (and still are) tough: standard operating procedure requires a well-trained monkey who will perform hundreds if not thousands of trials a day and then isolating neurons one at a time to find ones that respond during some interesting part of the trial. And then lots and lots of repetition so that you can average over many neurons. All things considered, it’s remarkable how much the field has been able to learn with this toolbox.
Fast forward to present day, there’s a new kid on the block. As I discussed a few weeks ago, rodent behavior and physiology is booming. People are taking on questions previously studied mainly in primates and are taking full advantage of the recent storm of new techniques. This is typified by today’s paper by Chris Harvey, Philip Coen, and David Tank, which goes back to the question – what does posterior parietal cortex do during a decision task? They imaged populations of neurons while mice used visual cues to navigate a virtual maze. Just like in primates, individual neurons were selective for different choices that the mouse made. But unlike in primate parietal cortex, where neurons tend to have sustained responses leading up to the time of decision, individual neurons responded transiently in different portions of the trial. So as a population, different choices were represented by distinct sequences of neuronal activity. This kind of sequential firing has been seen in other parts of the rodent brain such as hippocampus, but not in posterior parietal cortex. Read more