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Neuropsychologia. 2010 Jul;48(8):2385-405. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.01.011. Epub 2010 Jan 25.

What, if anything, can monkeys tell us about human amnesia when they can't say anything at all?

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  • 1Section on the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory, Laboratory of Neuropsychology, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892-4415, USA.


Despite a half century of development, the orthodox monkey model of human amnesia needs improvement, in part because of two problems inherent in animal models of advanced human cognition. First, animal models are perforce comparative, but the principles of comparative and evolutionary biology have not featured prominently in developing the orthodox model. Second, no one understands the relationship between human consciousness and cognition in other animals, but the orthodox model implicitly assumes a close correspondence. If we treat these two difficulties with the deference they deserve, monkeys can tell us a lot about human amnesia and memory. Three future contributions seem most likely: (1) an improved monkey model, one refocused on the hippocampus rather than on the medial temporal lobe as a whole; (2) a better understanding of cortical areas unique to primates, especially the granular prefrontal cortex; and (3), taking the two together, insight into prefrontal-hippocampal interactions. We propose that interactions among the granular prefrontal areas create the kind of cross-domain, analogical and self-referential knowledge that underlies advanced cognition in modern humans. When these products of frontal-lobe function interact with the hippocampus, and its ancestral function in navigation, what emerges is the human ability to embed ourselves in scenarios-real and imagined, self-generated and received-thereby creating a coherent, conscious life experience.

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