"Place" cells of the rat hippocampus are coupled to "head direction" cells of the thalamus and limbic cortex. Head direction cells are sensitive to head direction in the horizontal plane only, which leads to the question of whether place cells similarly encode locations in the horizontal plane only, ignoring the z axis, or whether they encode locations in three dimensions. This question was addressed by recording from ensembles of CA1 pyramidal cells while rats traversed a rectangular track that could be tilted and rotated to different three-dimensional orientations. Cells were analyzed to determine whether their firing was bound to the external, three-dimensional cues of the environment, to the two-dimensional rectangular surface, or to some combination of these cues. Tilting the track 45° generally provoked a partial remapping of the rectangular surface in that some cells maintained their place fields, whereas other cells either gained new place fields, lost existing fields, or changed their firing locations arbitrarily. When the tilted track was rotated relative to the distal landmarks, most place fields remapped, but a number of cells maintained the same place field relative to the x-y coordinate frame of the laboratory, ignoring the z axis. No more cells were bound to the local reference frame of the recording apparatus than would be predicted by chance. The partial remapping demonstrated that the place cell system was sensitive to the three-dimensional manipulations of the recording apparatus. Nonetheless the results were not consistent with an explicit three-dimensional tuning of individual hippocampal neurons nor were they consistent with a model in which different sets of cells are tightly coupled to different sets of environmental cues. The results are most consistent with the statement that hippocampal neurons can change their "tuning functions" in arbitrary ways when features of the sensory input or behavioral context are altered. Understanding the rules that govern the remapping phenomenon holds promise for deciphering the neural circuitry underlying hippocampal function.
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