What IS the dentate gyrus doing to CA3?

Calbindin expression in the dentate gyrus/hippocampus is variable, and particularly weak in young neurons

A fundamental property of the hippocampus is its ability to rapidly encode memories while simultaneously keeping them distinct. Recording from hippocampal neurons one can clearly see that different populations of neurons are active as a rat explores two environments. This is thought to be one mechanism by which information is kept distinct in the brain.

For the last 15-20 years it has been thought that the dentate gyrus (DG), a major subfield of the hippocampus, serves to take small changes in incoming sensory information and orthogonalize them (i.e. make them more different). This idea was built in part on the fact that there are many more DG neurons than upstream cortical neurons. Thus, the DG could use completely different populations of neurons to represent different sets of incoming information and then pass on these representations to CA3, which may bind them into coherent events/memories (the interconnectedness of CA3 neurons, via “recurrent collatorals”, is thought to be a mechanism by which the different components of a memory are bound together).

However, a “problem” arose when Leutgeb et al. found that it is always the same population of dentate granule neurons (~1% of the total population) that are active as an animal explores different environments, even very different ones. This was a bit of a surprise. Still consistent with the proposed role of the DG in orthogonalizing information, however, was the fact that the DG neurons fired (i.e. generated action potentials, which transmit information from neuron to neuron) at different rates/frequencies in the different environments. Thus, changes in sensory information were represented by changes in patterns of activity within the same population of cells, not by recruiting different populations of cells. This is but one study – the question of how the DG encodes and extracts information is far from settled (e.g. what are the other 99% of granule neurons doing? Surely there is a situation in which they are active, no?). But the findings were robust and raise many questions, namely: How does the same population of DG neurons activate different populations of downstream CA3 neurons, during different experiences?

Until now I had been in denial, fixated on trying to understand what types of behavioral experiences might activate different populations of dentate gyrus neurons. But maybe now it’s time to face the data.

The consensus, both in vitro (e.g. here and here) and in vivo (here), seems to be that if DG neurons are sufficiently active they can reliably activate CA3 neurons. Can a single population of DG neurons account for the amount of CA3 activity seen in the behaving animal? Well, 1% activation of the total DG population (1 million neurons) is 10 000 DG neurons. Each DG neuron contacts about 10 CA3 neurons. So if all active DG neurons activated all their downstream targets, then you’d expect about 100 000 active CA3 neurons – a third of the population. Indeed, about 20% of CA3 neurons are active when a rat explores a novel environment. So it’s possible. But it’s probably unlikely.

One reason it’s unlikely is that it doesn’t explain how different populations of CA3 neurons are activated by different experiences if it is the same population of DG neurons that are always driving them. In other words, since DG neurons are relatively hard-wired to CA3 neurons, how could a given DG neuron activate a CA3 neuron under some conditions and not others? One answer is that maybe it doesn’t – quite a while ago, McNaughton et al. showed that, even when the DG is lesioned, CA3 neurons are still able to selectively encode spatial locations as a rat traverses the environment, probably due to direct inputs from the cortex. And so perhaps the primary function of the DG is not to selectively activate different CA3 populations. However, the DG could certainly shape activity within CA3 or insert unique information into the CA3 network. How?

One possible mechanism, which may be dead obvious to electrophysiologists, is frequency itself. Leutgeb et al. found that frequency of activity is how DG neurons encode information and so frequency of activity may also be the way DG neurons transmit information to CA3 during different experiences.

It has been known for some time now that the output of DG neurons, the mossy fiber axons, show extraordinary frequency-dependent synaptic facilitation. Basically, as a DG neuron fires more action potentials over shorter periods of time, the amount of neurotransmitter it releases onto CA3 neurons increases (thereby increasing the likelihood a CA3 neuron will in turn fire action potentials and be recruited to participate in memory encoding). This means that at low firing rates, a DG neuron will activate some CA3 neurons and, at higher firing rates, it will recruit different or at least additional CA3 neurons.

Wouldn’t this cause a problem where, as DG firing rates increase, it is not different populations of CA3 neurons that become activated, but more populations? Well, it is known that some DG neurons increase their activity, and others decrease their activity, as an animal has different experiences, so the net activity in CA3 could remain constant, while still activating different CA3 populations. However, the DG-CA3 circuitry is certainly complicated enough to allow for other mechanisms. For example, while the dentate gyrus projects to CA3, and it is connections between these hippocampal regions that are thought to encode memories, DG neurons actually contact more inhibitory interneurons than CA3 neurons. Furthermore, there is a wide variety of synaptic connections between DG neurons and interneurons and these connections can be made weaker or stronger in a state- and frequency-dependent manner. Suffice it to say, by firing at different frequencies, it is plausible that a given DG neuron could activate different populations of interneurons, which in turn could inhibit different populations of downstream CA3 neurons, making them less likely to participate in memory encoding.

This ties in loosely to a peculiarity of the dentate gyrus that, until now, has just been a source of pretty histological images (to me) – the variability of calbindin expression in dentate gyrus neurons. Calbindin is a protein that binds calcium, it acts as a buffer, and gives DG neurons their property of facilitation (briefly: A single action potential in a DG neuron will travel down the axon and trigger the opening of calcium channels in the synaptic terminal at a CA3 neuron. Calcium is necessary for neurotransmitter release and subsequent activation of the CA3 neuron. Calbindin will bind this small amount of calcium, thereby preventing neurotransmitter release and CA3 activation. However, as the number and frequency of action potentials increases, calbindin will fail to effectively “mop up” the extra calcium and neurotransmission will proceed.). If you look at the picture at the top of this post, you can see that the amount of calbindin varies greatly in DG neurons. Immature DG neurons, identified by PSA-NCAM expression, are devoid of calbindin (arrows point to clear examples) and even when they are quite mature (10w of age) 40% will still be devoid of calbindin (see my data in this montage). Lastly, calbindin expression can be modified by experience. So the variable and modifiable expression of calbindin might be yet another mechanism by which DG neurons are capable of shaping activity in CA3 neurons. Indeed, at least one study, from Robert Sapolsky’s lab, has shown that genetically altering calbindin expression in the dentate gyrus dramatically influences DG-CA3 physiology and impairs memory.

Thanks to A.P. for posing the question.


Leutgeb JK, Leutgeb S, Moser MB, & Moser EI (2007). Pattern separation in the dentate gyrus and CA3 of the hippocampus. Science, 315 (5814), 961-6 PMID: 17303747