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Curr Biol. 2012 Jun 19;22(12):1149-53. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.04.040. Epub 2012 May 24.

Rats answer an unexpected question after incidental encoding.

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Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405-7007, USA.


A fundamental aspect of episodic memory is that retrieval of information can occur when encoding is incidental and memory assessment is unexpected. These features are difficult to model in animals because behavioral training likely gives rise to well-learned expectations about the sequence of events. Thus, the possibility remains that animals may solve an episodic memory test by using well-learned semantic rules without remembering the episode at memory assessment. Here we show that rats can answer an unexpected question after incidental encoding in a hippocampal-dependent manner, consistent with the use of episodic memory. Rats were initially trained to report about a recent event (food versus no food) and separately searched for food where there was no expectation of being asked about the presence of food. To test episodic memory, we gave rats the opportunity to incidentally encode the presence or absence of food and unexpectedly asked them to report about the recent event. Temporary inactivation of the CA3 region of the hippocampus with bilateral infusions of lidocaine selectively eliminated the ability of rats to answer the unexpected, but not the expected, question. Our studies suggest that rats remember an earlier episode after incidental encoding based upon hippocampal-dependent episodic memory.

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