Historically, the earliest widely held hypothesis was that the hippocampus is involved in olfaction. This idea was cast into doubt by a series of anatomical studies that did not find any direct projections to the hippocampus from the olfactory bulb. However, later work did confirm that the olfactory bulb does project into the ventral part of the lateral entorhinal cortex and field in the ventral hippocampus sends axons to the main olfactory bulb, the anterior olfactory nucleus, and to the primary olfactory cortex.
There continues to be some interest in hippocampal olfactory responses, in particular the role of the hippocampus in memory for odors, but few specialists today believe that olfaction is its primary function.
Over the years, three main ideas of hippocampal function have dominated the literature: inhibition, memory, and space.
The behavioral inhibition theory (caricatured by O”Keefe and Nadel as “slam on the brakes!”) was very popular up to the 1960s. It derived much of its justification from two observations: first, that animals with hippocampal damage tend to be hyperactive; second, that animals with hippocampal damage often have difficulty learning to inhibit responses that they have previously been taught, especially if the response requires remaining quiet as in a passive avoidance test. Jeffrey Gray developed this line of thought into a full-fledged theory of the role of the hippocampus in anxiety. The inhibition theory is currently the least popular of the three.
The second major line of thought relates the hippocampus to memory. Although it had historical precursors, this idea derived its main impetus from a famous report by William Beecher Scoville and Brenda Milner describing the results of surgical destruction of the hippocampi (in an attempt to relieve epileptic seizures), in Henry Molaison, known until his death in 2008 as “Patient H.M.” The unexpected outcome of the surgery was severe anterograde and partial retrograde amnesia;
The third important theory of hippocampal function relates the hippocampus to space. The spatial theory was originally championed by O”Keefe and Nadel, who were influenced by E.C. Tolman”s theories about “cognitive maps” in humans and animals. O”Keefe and his student Dostrovsky in 1971 discovered neurons in the rat hippocampus that appeared to them to show activity related to the rat”s location within its environment.
Despite skepticism from other investigators, O”Keefe and his co-workers, especially Lynn Nadel, continued to investigate this question, in a line of work that eventually led to their very influential 1978 book The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map. As with the memory theory, there is now almost universal agreement that spatial coding plays an important role in hippocampal function, but the details are widely debated.
Plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term to long-term memory and spatial navigation.