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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Dec 15;106(50):21329-34. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0902319106. Epub 2009 Dec 1.

Human medial temporal lobe neurons respond preferentially to personally relevant images.

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Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA.


People with whom one is personally acquainted tend to elicit richer and more vivid memories than people with whom one does not have a personal connection. Recent findings from neurons in the human medial temporal lobe (MTL) have shown that individual cells respond selectively and invariantly to representations of famous people [Quian Quiroga R, Reddy L, Kreiman G, Koch C, Fried I (2005) Nature 435(7045):1102-1107]. Observing these cells, we wondered whether photographs of personally relevant individuals, such as family members, might be more likely to generate such responses. To address this issue, we recorded the activity of 2,330 neurons in the human MTL while patients viewed photographs of varying personal relevance: previously unknown faces and landscapes, familiar but not necessarily personally relevant faces and landscapes, and finally, photographs of the patients themselves, their families, and the experimenters. Our findings indicate that personally relevant photographs are indeed more likely to elicit selective responses in MTL neurons than photographs of individuals with whom the patients have had no personal contact. These findings further suggest that relevant stimuli are encoded by a larger proportion of neurons than less relevant stimuli, given that familiar or personally relevant items are linked to a larger variety of experiences and memories of these experiences.

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