Rat Orbitofrontal Ensemble Activity Contains Multiplexed but Dissociable Representations of Value and Task Structure in an Odor Sequence Task

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The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) has long been implicated in signaling information about expected outcomes to facilitate adaptive or flexible behavior. Current proposals focus on signaling of expected value versus the representation of a value-agnostic cognitive map of the task. While often suggested as mutually exclusive, these alternatives may represent extreme ends of a continuum determined by task complexity and experience. As learning proceeds, an initial, detailed cognitive map might be acquired, based largely on external information. With more experience, this hypothesized map can then be tailored to include relevant abstract hidden cognitive constructs. The map would default to an expected value in situations where other attributes are largely irrelevant, but, in richer tasks, a more detailed structure might continue to be represented, at least where relevant to behavior. Here, we examined this by recording single-unit activity from the OFC in rats navigating an odor sequence task analogous to a spatial maze. The odor sequences provided a mappable state space, with 24 unique “positions” defined by sensory information, likelihood of reward, or both. Consistent with the hypothesis that the OFC represents a cognitive map tailored to the subjects' intentions or plans, we found a close correspondence between how subjects were using the sequences and the neural representations of the sequences in OFC ensembles. Multiplexed with this value-invariant representation of the task, we also found a representation of the expected value at each location. Thus, the value and task structure co-existed as dissociable components of the neural code in OFC.
Current Biology
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