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Single cell plasticity and population coding stability in auditory thalamus upon associative learning

Nature Communications

Cortical and limbic brain areas are regarded as centres for learning. However, how thalamic sensory relays participate in plasticity upon associative learning, yet support stable long-term sensory coding remains unknown. Using a miniature microscope imaging approach, we monitor the activity of populations of auditory thalamus (MGB) neurons in freely moving mice upon fear conditioning. We find that single cells exhibit mixed selectivity and heterogeneous plasticity patterns to auditory and aversive stimuli upon learning, which is conserved in amygdala-projecting MGB neurons. In contrast to individual cells, population level encoding of auditory stimuli remained stable across days. Our data identifies MGB as a site for complex neuronal plasticity in fear learning upstream of the amygdala that is in an ideal position to drive plasticity in cortical and limbic brain areas. These findings suggest that MGB’s role goes beyond a sole relay function by balancing experience-dependent, diverse single cell plasticity with consistent ensemble level representations of the sensory environment to support stable auditory perception with minimal affective bias.

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