Context fear memory dysregulation is a hallmark symptom of several neuropsychiatric disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. The hippocampus (HC) and prelimbic (PrL) subregion of the medial prefrontal cortex have been linked with context fear memory retrieval in rodents, but the mechanisms by which HC-PrL circuitry regulates this process remain poorly understood.
Spatial and genetic targeting of HC-PrL circuitry was used for RNA sequencing (n = 31), chemogenetic stimulation (n = 44), in vivo calcium imaging (n = 20), ex vivo electrophysiology (n = 8), and molecular regulation of plasticity cascades during fear behavior (context fear retrieval) (n = 16).
We showed that ventral HC (vHC) neurons with projections to the PrL cortex (vHC-PrL projectors) are a transcriptomically distinct subpopulation compared with adjacent nonprojecting neurons, and we showed complementary enrichment for diverse neuronal processes and central nervous system–related clinical gene sets. We further showed that stimulation of this population of vHC-PrL projectors suppresses context fear memory retrieval and impairs the ability of PrL neurons to dynamically distinguish between distinct phases of fear learning. Using transgenic and circuit-specific molecular targeting approaches, we demonstrated that unique patterns of activity-dependent gene transcription associated with brain-derived neurotrophic factor signaling within vHC-PrL projectors causally regulated activity in excitatory and inhibitory PrL neurons during context fear memory retrieval.
Together, our data show that activity-dependent brain-derived neurotrophic factor release from molecularly distinct vHC-PrL projection neurons modulates postsynaptic signaling in both inhibitory and excitatory PrL neurons, modifying activity in discrete populations of PrL neurons to suppress freezing during context fear memory retrieval.