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J Neurosci. 2018 Apr 25;38(17):4200-4211. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2312-17.2018. Epub 2018 Apr 3.

Human Episodic Memory Retrieval Is Accompanied by a Neural Contiguity Effect.

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Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, United Kingdom.
Department of Neurosurgery, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
Computation and Neural Systems Program, Division of Biology and Biological Engineering, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena CA 91125, and.
Departments of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Physics, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts 02215


Cognitive psychologists have long hypothesized that experiences are encoded in a temporal context that changes gradually over time. When an episodic memory is retrieved, the state of context is recovered-a jump back in time. We recorded from single units in the medial temporal lobe of epilepsy patients performing an item recognition task. The population vector changed gradually over minutes during presentation of the list. When a probe from the list was remembered with high confidence, the population vector reinstated the temporal context of the original presentation of that probe during study, a neural contiguity effect that provides a possible mechanism for behavioral contiguity effects. This pattern was only observed for well remembered probes; old probes that were not well remembered showed an anti-contiguity effect. These results constitute the first direct evidence that recovery of an episodic memory in humans is associated with retrieval of a gradually changing state of temporal context, a neural "jump back in time" that parallels the act of remembering.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Episodic memory is the ability to relive a specific experience from one's life. For decades, researchers have hypothesized that, unlike other forms of memory that can be described as simple associations between stimuli, episodic memory depends on the recovery of a neural representation of spatiotemporal context. During study of a sequence of stimuli, the brain state of epilepsy patients changed slowly over at least a minute. When the participant remembered a particular event from the list, this gradually changing state was recovered. This provides direct confirmation of the prediction from computational models of episodic memory. The resolution of this point means that the study of episodic memory can focus on the mechanisms by which this representation of spatiotemporal context is maintained and sometimes recovered.


contiguity effect; episodic memory; recollection

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