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A Variable Clock Underlies Internally Generated Hippocampal Sequences.


Humans have the ability to store and retrieve memories with various degrees of specificity, and recent advances in reinforcement learning have identified benefits to learning when past experience is represented at different levels of temporal abstraction. How this flexibility might be implemented in the brain remains unclear. We analyzed the temporal organization of male rat hippocampal population spiking to identify potential substrates for temporally flexible representations. We examined activity both during locomotion and during memory-associated population events known as sharp-wave ripples (SWRs). We found that spiking during SWRs is rhythmically organized with higher event-to-event variability than spiking during locomotion-associated population events. Decoding analyses using clusterless methods further indicate that a similar spatial experience can be replayed in multiple SWRs, each time with a different rhythmic structure whose periodicity is sampled from a log-normal distribution. This variability increases with experience despite the decline in SWR rates that occurs as environments become more familiar. We hypothesize that the variability in temporal organization of hippocampal spiking provides a mechanism for storing experiences with various degrees of specificity.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT One of the most remarkable properties of memory is its flexibility: the brain can retrieve stored representations at varying levels of detail where, for example, we can begin with a memory of an entire extended event and then zoom in on a particular episode. The neural mechanisms that support this flexibility are not understood. Here we show that hippocampal sharp-wave ripples, which mark the times of memory replay and are important for memory storage, have a highly variable temporal structure that is well suited to support the storage of memories at different levels of detail.

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