Brain Structures Involved in Memory

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Modern research confirms the hypothesis that memories are not localized in one place in the brain, but rather involve interacting circuits operating across the brain. Many of the neural regions used in perceiving and attending to information seem also to be involved in the encoding and subsequent retrieval of information. Thus, although different brain regions perform different memory-related processes, the memories themselves do not appear to reside in any particular place.

The hippocampus is thought to be one of the most important brain structures involved in memory. The case of the patient H.M. (only his initials were used to preserve his anonymity), one of the most famous case studies in neuropsychology, strikingly demonstrates the importance of the hippocampus. In 1953, as a 27-year-old man, H.M. underwent brain surgery to control severe epileptic seizures. The surgeons removed his medial temporal lobes, which included most of the hippocampus, the amygdala, and surrounding structures. Although the operation successfully controlled H.M.’s seizures, it had an altogether unexpected and devastating side effect: H.M. was unable to form new long-term memories in a way that he could later retrieve them. That is, he could not remember anything that happened to him after the surgery. His memory of events prior to the surgery was mostly intact, and his reasoning and thinking skills remained strong. But he could not remember meeting new people or new experiences for more than a few minutes. Researchers concluded that the hippocampus and its surrounding structures in the medial temporal lobe play a critical role in the encoding of episodic memories, especially in binding elements of memories together to locate the memories in particular times and places.

Further evidence for the importance of the hippocampus and other regions of the brain in human memory has been provided by advanced brain imaging techniques, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Brain imaging methods allow researchers to see the activity of the living human brain on a computer screen as a person engages in different types of cognitive tasks, such as reading, solving math problems, or memorizing a list of words. These scanning methods take advantage of the fact that when a brain region becomes active, the rate at which neurons (brain cells) fire increases within this region. Increased neuronal firing in a region causes an increase in blood flow to that region, which the scanners can measure. Therefore, if a person is encoding new information into memory and the hippocampus is active during encoding, we would expect to see increased blood flow to the hippocampus. This is exactly the pattern observed in most studies.

Neuroimaging techniques have revealed other brain regions involved in memory. The frontal lobes play an important role in encoding and retrieving memories. For example, certain areas of the left frontal lobe seem especially active during encoding of memories, whereas those in the right frontal lobe are more active during retrieval. An area in the right anterior prefrontal cortex becomes active when a person is trying to retrieve a previously experienced episode. Some evidence indicates that this region may be even more active when the retrieval attempt is successful that is, when the person not only attempts to remember but is able to remember some previous occurrence.

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