High-level cortical systems for spatial navigation, including entorhinal grid cells, critically depend on input from the head direction system. We examined spiking rhythms and modes of synchrony between neurons participating in head direction networks for evidence of internal processing, independent of direct sensory drive, which may be important for grid cell function. We found that head direction networks of rats were segregated into at least two populations of neurons firing on alternate theta cycles (theta cycle skipping) with fixed synchronous or anti-synchronous relationships. Pairs of anti-synchronous theta cycle skipping neurons exhibited larger differences in head direction tuning, with a minimum difference of 40 degrees of head direction. Septal inactivation preserved the head direction signal, but eliminated theta cycle skipping of head direction cells and grid cell spatial periodicity. We propose that internal mechanisms underlying cycle skipping in head direction networks may be critical for downstream spatial computation by grid cells.
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We kindly thank S. Gillet, J. Hinman, E. Newman and L. Ewell for their invaluable consultations and comments on previous versions of this manuscript, as well as M. Connerney, S. Eriksson, C. Libby and T. Ware for technical assistance and behavioral training. This work was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (R01 MH60013 and MH61492) and the Office of Naval Research Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (N00014-10-1-0936).