Persistent neural activity in cortical, hippocampal, and motor networks has been described as mediating working memory for transiently encountered stimuli1,2. Internal emotional states, such as fear, also persist following exposure to an inciting stimulus3, but it is unclear whether slow neural dynamics are involved in this process. Neurons in the dorsomedial and central subdivisions of the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMHdm/c) that express the nuclear receptor protein NR5A1 (also known as SF1) are necessary for defensive responses to predators in mice4–7. Optogenetic activation of these neurons, referred to here as VMHdmSF1 neurons, elicits defensive behaviours that outlast stimulation5,8, which suggests the induction of a persistent internal state of fear or anxiety. Here we show that in response to naturalistic threatening stimuli, VMHdmSF1 neurons in mice exhibit activity that lasts for many tens of seconds. This persistent activity was correlated with, and required for, persistent defensive behaviour in an open-field assay, and depended on neurotransmitter release from VMHdmSF1 neurons. Stimulation and calcium imaging in acute slices showed that there is local excitatory connectivity between VMHdmSF1 neurons. Microendoscopic calcium imaging of VMHdmSF1 neurons revealed that persistent activity at the population level reflects heterogeneous dynamics among individual cells. Unexpectedly, distinct but overlapping VMHdmSF1 subpopulations were persistently activated by different modalities of threatening stimulus. Computational modelling suggests that neither recurrent excitation nor slow-acting neuromodulators alone can account for persistent activity that maintains stimulus identity. Our results show that stimulus-specific slow neural dynamics in the hypothalamus, on a time scale orders of magnitude longer than that of working memory in the cortex9,10, contribute to a persistent emotional state.
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