The hippocampus as a cognitive graph

Robert U. Muller, Matt Stead, Janos Pach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

219 Scopus citations


A theory of cognitive mapping is developed that depends only on accepted properties of hippocampal function, namely, long-term potentiation, the place cell phenomenon, and the associative or recurrent connections made among CA3 pyramidal cells. It is proposed that the distance between the firing fields of connected pairs of CA3 place cells is encoded as synaptic resistance (reciprocal synaptic strength). The encoding occurs because pairs of cells with coincident or overlapping fields will tend to fire together in time, thereby causing a decrease in synaptic resistance via long-term potentiation; in contrast, cells with widely separated fields will tend never to fire together, causing no change or perhaps (via long-term depression) an increase in synaptic resistance. A network whose connection pattern mimics that of CA3 and whose connection weights are proportional to synaptic resistance can be formally treated as a weighted, directed graph. In such a graph, a 'node' is assigned to each CA3 cell and two nodes are connected by a 'directed edge' if and only if the two corresponding cells are connected by a synapse. Weighted, directed graphs can be searched for an optimal path between any pair of nodes with standard algorithms. Here, we are interested in finding the path along which the sum of the synaptic resistances from one cell to another is minimal. Since each cell is a place cell, such a path also corresponds to a path in two-dimensional space. Our basic finding is that minimizing the sum of the synaptic resistances along a path in neural space yields the shortest (optimal) path in unobstructed two-dimensional space, so long as the connectivity of the network is great enough. In addition to being able to find geodesics in unobstructed space, the same network enables solutions to the 'detour' and shortcut' problems, in which it is necessary to find an optimal path around a newly introduced barrier and to take a shorter path through a hole opened up in a preexisting barrier, respectively. We argue that the ability to solve such problems qualifies the proposed hippocampal object as a cognitive map. Graph theory thus provides a sort of existence proof demonstrating that the hippocampus contains the necessary information to function as a map, the sense postulated by others (O'Keefe, J., and L. Nadel. 1978. The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK). It is also possible that the cognitive mapping functions of the hippocampus are carried out by parallel graph searching algorithms implemented as neural processes. This possibility has the great attraction that the hippocampus could then operate in much the same way to find paths in general problem space; it would only be necessary for pyramidal cells to exhibit a strong nonpositional firing correlate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)663-694
Number of pages32
JournalJournal of General Physiology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1996


  • cognitive map
  • graph theory
  • hippocampal long-term potentiation
  • neural applications
  • place cells
  • rat navigation, computer model

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology


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