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J Neurosci. 2010 Jun 23;30(25):8541-50. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1478-10.2010.

Neural mechanisms underlying the impact of visual distraction on retrieval of long-term memory.

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Department of Neurology, W. M. Keck Center for Integrative Neurosciences, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, California 94158-2330, USA.


Filtering information on the basis of what is relevant to accomplish our goals is a critical process supporting optimal cognitive performance. However, it is not known whether exposure to irrelevant environmental stimuli impairs our ability to accurately retrieve long-term memories. We hypothesized that visual processing of irrelevant visual information would interfere with mental visualization engaged during recall of the details of a prior experience, despite goals to direct full attention to the retrieval task. In the current study, we compared performance on a cued-recall test of previously studied visual items when participants' eyes were closed to performance when their eyes were open and irrelevant visual stimuli were presented. A behavioral experiment revealed that recollection of episodic details was diminished in the presence of the irrelevant information. A functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment using the same paradigm replicated the behavioral results and found that diminished recollection was associated with the disruption of functional connectivity in a network involving the left inferior frontal gyrus, hippocampus and visual association cortex. Network connectivity supported recollection of contextual details based on visual imagery when eyes were closed, but declined in the presence of irrelevant visual information. We conclude that bottom-up influences from irrelevant visual information interfere with top-down selection of episodic details mediated by a capacity-limited frontal control region, resulting in impaired recollection.

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