Fear is an emotional response to danger that is highly conserved throughout evolution because it is critical for survival. Accordingly, episodic memory for fearful locations is widely studied using contextual fear conditioning, a hippocampus-dependent task (Kim and Fanselow, 1992; Phillips and LeDoux, 1992). The hippocampus has been implicated in episodic emotional memory and is thought to integrate emotional stimuli within a spatial framework. Physiological evidence supporting the role of the hippocampus in contextual fear indicates that pyramidal cells in this region, which fire in specific locations as an animal moves through an environment, shift their preferred firing locations shortly after the presentation of an aversive stimulus (Moita et al., 2004). However, the long-term physiological mechanisms through which emotional memories are encoded by the hippocampus are unknown. Here we show that during and directly after a fearful experience, new hippocampal representations are established and persist in the long term. We recorded from the same place cells in mouse hippocampal area CA1 over several days during predator odor contextual fear conditioning and found that a subset of cells changed their preferred firing locations in response to the fearful stimulus. Furthermore, the newly formed representations of the fearful context stabilized in the long term. Our results demonstrate that place cells respond to the presence of an aversive stimulus, modify their firing patterns during emotional learning, and stabilize a long-term spatial representation in response to a fearful encounter. The persistent nature of these representations may contribute to the enduring quality of emotional memories.
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