Everybody knows what the hippocampus is for: memory. And…maybe something about anxiety or depression? Yes – over the last 10 years or so many studies have been published showing that the hippocampus has these two roles and that the mnemonic and emotional functions of the hippocampus are associated with its septal (dorsal) and temporal (ventral) ends, respectively. This new knowledge means that we’ve had to reorient our perspective. What we see when we consider the septal hippocampus may not be the same if we only consider its temporal end. My goal here is not to provide a review of the memory vs. emotional functions of the hippocampus (btw this dichotomy is a vast oversimplification). Instead, I’d like to talk about how people have differentiated these two ends of the hippocampus in their analyses. I’m also happy to showcase a bunch of pretty anatomical images that will probably never be published in a traditional journal article.
Some studies showing different functions of septal and temporal hippocampus
- Some of the best reviews of the topic are by Bannerman et al from 2004 and 2011.
- A recent and free review article by Fanselow and Dong.
- Classic Moser papers showing spatial memory is more dependent on dorsal hippocampus and anxiety/fear behavior on ventral hippocampus
- A recent paper suggesting that spatial processing in the septal hippocampus meets the behavioral-control functions of the temporal hippocampus to enable rapid spatial learning
History of neurogenesis quantification. So, back in the day, before I even knew what a neuron was, and before it was well-established that there was functional differentiation along the hippocampal axis, people would pick a few sections from the dorsal hippocampus (it’s much more photogenic, gets all the glory), count new neurons, and make it a density measurement. Then the stereology police arrived (seriously, that’s what they’re called) and pointed out that changes in tissue volume or cell packing could change density measurements without there being any differences in numbers of cells. Stereological analyses also prevent any biases that might arise from creating arbitrary boundaries when examining only part of the hippocampus. And so people started doing stereological counts, which require a systematic quantification throughout the entire hippocampus. My guess is that this probably delayed the appreciation that neurogenesis could vary in magnitude and function along the hippocampal axis. Now that we know that stereology is pointless we can get back to business (this is a joke – please don’t arrest me).
Difficulty of quantifying subregions due to curvature of the hippocampus. One of the reasons the hippocampus is such a popular neurobiological model is its anatomy – the dentate gyrus, CA3 and CA1 subfields are all composed of tightly packed cells that are easy to identify. Thinking of the hippocampus along its long axis, one end projects to the septum and the other abuts the temporal lobe, hence “septotemporal” is technically the most accurate way to refer to the different ends of the hippocamus. The hippocampus is curved in such a way that you can actually cut it along any of the 3 spatial planes (X, Y, Z aka coronal, horizontal, sagittal) and hit the hippocampus perpendicular to the septotemporal axis somewhere, giving rise to the classic the trisynaptic circuit. However, because of this same curvature, sectioning the brain in only one of the three planes means that some portion of the hippocampus is not going to be cut perpendicular to the long axis, producing sections in which septotemporal coordinates are hard to define.
The 3D nature of the hippocampus using images from the Allen Brain Explorer:
Figure 1: The dentate gyrus subfield of the hippocampus (i.e. green banana), from its septal pole, extends caudally and laterally and then ventrally. Green axis=dorsoventral, red=rostrocaudal, yellow=mediolateral.
Figure 2: A relatively caudal coronal section with the 3D dentate gyrus shown in the left panel, for comparison. This section contains ventral dentate gyrus (at the bottom, by “temporal”) but, at the top of the section, it also contains a portion of the dentate gyrus that is very dorsal, despite being far from the septal pole.