Associatively learned representations of taste outcomes activate taste-encoding neural ensembles in gustatory cortex.
Through learning processes, cues associated with emotionally salient reinforcing outcomes can come to act as substitutes for the reinforcer itself. According to one account of this phenomenon, the predictive cue associatively elicits a representation of the expected outcome by reactivating cells responsible for encoding features of the primary reinforcer. We tested this hypothesis by examining the role of neural ensembles in gustatory cortex (GC) during receipt of gustatory stimuli (sucrose and water) and cues associated with those stimuli using the immediate early genes (IEGs) Arc and Homer1a. Because these plasticity-related IEGs are expressed in the neuronal nucleus 5 and 30 min, respectively, after salient events, we examined how individual neurons encoded these stimuli in two separate behavioral epochs. In experiment 1, we showed that tasting identical sucrose solutions, but not tasteless water, in the two epochs increased both IEG activity and the degree of overlap between neural ensembles in GC. In experiment 2, odor cues associated with sucrose, but not water, evoked potentiation of IEG activity in GC similar to sucrose itself. Surprisingly, lesions of the basolateral amygdala had minimal effects on associative encoding in GC. Finally, these associatively driven representations of sucrose appeared to be outcome specific, as neural ensembles that were activated by the sucrose-associated cue were also activated by sucrose itself. This degree of overlap between associative and primary taste activity at the ensemble level suggests that GC neurons encode important information about anticipated outcomes. Such representations may provide outcome-specific information for guiding goal-directed behavior.