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Neural processes underpinning episodic memory

By D. Hassabis

Abstract

Episodic memory is the memory for our personal past experiences. Although numerous functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies investigating its neural basis have revealed a consistent and distributed network of associated brain regions, surprisingly little is known about the contributions individual brain areas make to the recollective experience. In this thesis I address this fundamental issue by employing a range of different experimental techniques including neuropsychological testing, virtual reality environments, whole brain and high spatial resolution fMRI, and multivariate pattern analysis. Episodic memory recall is widely agreed to be a reconstructive process, one that is known to be critically reliant on the hippocampus. I therefore hypothesised that the same neural machinery responsible for reconstruction might also support ‘constructive’ cognitive functions such as imagination. To test this proposal, patients with focal damage to the hippocampus bilaterally were asked to imagine new experiences and were found to be impaired relative to matched control participants. Moreover, driving this deficit was a lack of spatial coherence in their imagined experiences, pointing to a role for the hippocampus in binding together the disparate elements of a scene. A subsequent fMRI study involving healthy participants compared the recall of real memories with the construction of imaginary memories. This revealed a fronto-temporo-parietal network in common to both tasks that included the hippocampus, ventromedial prefrontal, retrosplenial and parietal cortices. Based on these results I advanced the notion that this network might support the process of ‘scene construction’, defined as the generation and maintenance of a complex and coherent spatial context. Furthermore, I argued that this scene construction network might underpin other important cognitive functions besides episodic memory and imagination, such as navigation and thinking about the future. It is has been proposed that spatial context may act as the scaffold around which episodic memories are built. Given the hippocampus appears to play a critical role in imagination by supporting the creation of a rich coherent spatial scene, I sought to explore the nature of this hippocampal spatial code in a novel way. By combining high spatial resolution fMRI with multivariate pattern analysis techniques it proved possible to accurately determine where a subject was located in a virtual reality environment based solely on the pattern of activity across hippocampal voxels. For this to have been possible, the hippocampal population code must be large and non-uniform. I then extended these techniques to the domain of episodic memory by showing that individual memories could be accurately decoded from the pattern of activity across hippocampal voxels, thus identifying individual memory traces. I consider these findings together with other recent advances in the episodic memory field, and present a new perspective on the role of the hippocampus in episodic recollection. I discuss how this new (and preliminary) framework compares with current prevailing theories of hippocampal function, and suggest how it might account for some previously contradictory data

Publisher: UCL (University College London)
Year: 2009
OAI identifier: oai:eprints.ucl.ac.uk.OAI2:16126
Provided by: UCL Discovery

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