Self-organised attractor dynamics in the developing head direction circuit
Head direction (HD) cells signal the orientation of an animal's head relative to its environment. During post-natal development, HD cells are the earliest spatially modulated neurons in the hippocampal circuit to emerge. However, before eye-opening, HD cell responses in rat pups carry low directional information content and are directionally unstable. Using Bayesian decoding, we characterise this instability and identify its source: despite the directional signal being internally coherent, it
... ally coherent, it consistently under-signals angular head velocity (AHV), incompletely shifting in proportion to head turns. We find evidence that geometric cues (corners) can be used to mitigate this under-signalling, and stabilise the directional signal even before eye-opening. Crucially, even when directional firing cannot be stabilised, ensembles of unstable HD cells show short-timescale (1-10 sec) temporal and spatial couplings consistent with an adult-like HD network, through which activity drifts unanchored to landmark cues. The existence of fixed spatial and temporal offsets across co-recorded cells and of an AHV-responsive signal, even before HD responses become spatially stable, suggests that the HD circuit is assembled through internal, self-organising processes, without reference to external landmarks. The HD network is widely modelled as a continuous attractor whose output is one coherent activity peak, updated during movement by angular head velocity (AHV) signals, and anchored by landmark cues. Our findings present strong evidence for this model, and demonstrate that the required network circuitry is in place and functional during development, independent of reference to landmark information.