A new brain imaging study shows that the hippocampus is the brain’s storyteller, connecting separate, distant events into a single narrative.
“Things that happen in real life don’t always connect directly, but we can remember the details of each event better if they form a coherent narrative,” says Brendan Cohn-Sheehy, an MD/PhD student at the University of California, Davis and first author of the paper in Current Biology.
Cohn-Sheehy and colleagues at Professor Charan Ranganath’s Dynamic Memory Laboratory at the Center for Neuroscience and psychology department used functional MRI to image the hippocampus of volunteers as they learned and recalled a series of short stories.
The stories, created specifically for the study, featured main and side characters and an event. The stories were constructed so that some formed connected, two-part narratives and others did not.
The researchers played recordings of the stories to the volunteers in the fMRI scanner. The next day, they scanned them again as the volunteers recalled the stories into a microphone. The researchers compared the patterns of activity in the hippocampus between learning and recalling the different stories.
As expected, they saw more similarity for learning pieces of a coherent story than for stories that did not connect. The results show the coherent memories being woven together, Cohn-Sheehy says.
“When you get to the second event, you’re reaching back to the first event and embedding part of it in the new memory,” he says.
Next, they compared hippocampal patterns during learning and retrieval. They found that when recalling stories that formed a coherent narrative, the hippocampus activates more information about the second event than when recalling nonconnected stories.
“The second event is where the hippocampus is forming a connected memory,” Cohn-Sheehy says.
When the researchers tested the volunteers’ memory of stories, they found that the ability to bring back hippocampal activity of the second event was linked to the amount of detail the volunteers could recall.
The work is part of a new era in memory research. Traditionally, in neuroscience, researchers have studied the basic processes of memory involving disconnected pieces of information, whereas psychology has a tradition of studying how memory works to capture and connect events in the “real world.” These two camps are starting to merge, Cohn-Sheehy says.
“We’re using brain imaging to get at realistic memory processes,” he says.
Research on memory processes could ultimately lead to better clinical tests for early stages of memory decline in aging or dementia, or for assessing damage to memory from brain injuries.
Additional coauthors of the study are from UC Davis and Washington University in St. Louis. The work was partly funded by the US Office of Naval Research and the National Institute on Aging.
Source: UC Davis