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What does the retrosplenial cortex do?

Key Points

  • The main connectional properties of the retrosplenial cortex (RSC) (Brodmann areas 29 and 30) are conserved across mammalian species. Key features include reciprocal links with the hippocampal formation, the parahippocampal region, the limbic thalamus and the parietal cortex.

  • Functional studies of the RSC of rodents consistently point to a role in learning and navigation. These roles are thought to be acted out in concert with the hippocampal formation and the limbic thalamus.

  • Neuropsychological studies of the human RSC remain problematic owing to difficulties in isolating this area. Nevertheless, studies of patients with unilateral retrosplenial damage suggest an important contribution to navigation, whereas bilateral retrosplenial damage is often associated with anterograde and varying degrees of retrograde amnesia.

  • There is consistent evidence that the RSC suffers very early pathological changes in the progression of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease. These pathological changes are reflected by a decrease in metabolic activity.

  • Functional neuroimaging studies of healthy volunteers suggest broad involvement of the RSC in an array of cognitive abilities, with an almost ubiquitous engagement by tests of spatial navigation and episodic (autobiographical) memory.

  • These patterns of retrosplenial activity might relate to a key role in scene construction — the process of mentally generating and manipulating a complex or coherent scene. This process may underpin functions such as autobiographical memory, navigation and thinking about the future.

  • One specific hypothesis relating to the retrosplenial cortex is that it translates between different perspectives of the external world, namely viewpoint-dependent and viewpoint-independent frames of reference.

Abstract

The past decade has seen a transformation in research on the retrosplenial cortex (RSC). This cortical area has emerged as a key member of a core network of brain regions that underpins a range of cognitive functions, including episodic memory, navigation, imagination and planning for the future. It is now also evident that the RSC is consistently compromised in the most common neurological disorders that impair memory. Here we review advances on multiple fronts, most notably in neuroanatomy, animal studies and neuroimaging, that have highlighted the importance of the RSC for cognition, and consider why specifying its precise functions remains problematic.

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Figure 1: Retrosplenial neuroanatomy.
Figure 2: Segregating the specific contributions of the retrosplenial cortex using functional MRI.
Figure 3: The key anatomical and functional relationships of the retrosplenial cortex.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank A. Perrotin, N. Burgess, M. Greicius and L. Woods. E.A.M. is supported by the Wellcome Trust. S.D.V. is supported by a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) David Phillips Research Fellowship. S.D.V. and J.P.A.'s contributions have also been supported by a BBSRC grant (BB/D002001/1).

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Glossary

Head-direction cells

Cells that can distinguish, by altering their firing rate, the direction that an animal is facing.

Executive function

The planning and sequencing of future actions, selected from multiple options.

Immediate-early genes

Genes that encode transcription factors that are induced within minutes of raised neuronal activity without requiring a protein signal. Immediate-early gene activation is, therefore, used as an indirect marker of neuronal activation.

Working memory

In animal research this term refers to information that is required within a trial but may well prove to be misleading across trials or sessions.

Ideothetic information

Internal feedback information that can be used to monitor progress and, hence, position in space.

Path integration

The continuous integration of self-movement (ideothetic) cues to update representations of current position (and so plot a direct path back to the start of a journey). Also known as 'dead reckoning'.

Visuospatial conditional tasks

Tasks in which animals are required to learn fixed associations between visual stimuli or spatial contexts and either spatial locations or objects to gain a reward.

Compound-feature negative-discrimination task

A task in which animals are given two types of trial: one in which a stimulus (for example, a tone) is followed by a reward and a second in which the same stimulus is presented with another stimulus (for example, a light) but no reward. Control animals learn to respond to the tone only but not the tone and light combinations.

Contextual fear conditioning

When animals learn to associate a specific context or environment with the administration of an aversive stimulus, for example a shock. When re-exposed to the same context or environment control animals will demonstrate a fear response, for example freezing.

Active avoidance in a two-way shuttle box

When animals avoid a shock that they have learnt — through prior conditioning — is associated with a stimulus by entering the compartment in which they know they will not be shocked.

Place cells

Cells that fire differentially depending on the animal's location in an environment.

Grid cells

Neurons that fire strongly when an animal is at one of several specific locations in an environment and that are organized in a grid-like fashion.

Episodic memory

The recollection of events with a specific spatial and temporal context, such as personal experiences. Often referred to as autobiographical memory.

Rotational offset

Subtraction of the allocentric heading direction from the allocentric direction of an environmental landmark.

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Vann, S., Aggleton, J. & Maguire, E. What does the retrosplenial cortex do?. Nat Rev Neurosci 10, 792–802 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2733

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