Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The unique circuitry of the hippocampus is thought to support the encoding and retrieval of context-rich episodic memories. Given the neuroanatomical differences between the hippocampal subfields, determining their functional roles during representation of contextual features in humans is an important yet unaddressed research goal. Prior studies suggest that, during the acquisition of information from the environment, the dentate gyrus (DG) and CA3 subfields rapidly differentiate competing contextual representations, whereas CA1, situated downstream from CA3/DG, is believed to process input from both CA3 and neocortical areas via the temporoammonic pathway. To further explore the functionality of these roles, we used high-resolution fMRI to investigate multivariate response patterns within CA3/DG and CA1 during the processing of spatial context. While undergoing functional imaging, participants viewed videos of virtual environments and were asked to discriminate between similar yet geometrically distinct cities. We manipulated a single contextual feature by systematically morphing the city configurations from one common geometric shape to another, resulting in four cities—two distinctively shaped cities and two intermediate “morphed” cities. Pattern similarity within CA3/DG scaled with geometric changes to the environment. In contrast, CA1 pattern similarity, as well as interregional pattern similarity between CA1 and parahippocampal cortex, increased for the regularly shaped configurations compared with the morphs. These results highlight different roles for subfields CA3/DG and CA1 in memory and advance our understanding of how subcomponents of the human hippocampal circuit represent contextual features of memories.