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Front Hum Neurosci. 2011 Aug 22;5:86. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2011.00086. eCollection 2011.

Distributed Patterns of Brain Activity that Lead to Forgetting.

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Department of Psychology, Koç University Istanbul, Turkey.


Proactive interference (PI), in which irrelevant information from prior learning disrupts memory performance, is widely viewed as a major cause of forgetting. However, the hypothesized spontaneous recovery (i.e., automatic retrieval) of interfering information presumed to be at the base of PI remains to be demonstrated directly. Moreover, it remains unclear at what point during learning and/or retrieval interference impacts memory performance. In order to resolve these open questions, we employed a machine-learning algorithm to identify distributed patterns of brain activity associated with retrieval of interfering information that engenders PI and causes forgetting. Participants were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging during an item recognition task. We induced PI by constructing sets of three consecutive study lists from the same semantic category. The classifier quantified the magnitude of category-related activity at encoding and retrieval. Category-specific activity during retrieval increased across lists, consistent with the category information becoming increasingly available and producing interference. Critically, this increase was correlated with individual differences in forgetting and the deployment of frontal lobe mechanisms that resolve interference. Collectively, these findings suggest that distributed patterns of brain activity pertaining to the interfering information during retrieval contribute to forgetting. The prefrontal cortex mediates the relationship between the spontaneous recovery of interfering information at retrieval and individual differences in memory performance.


VLPFC; fMRI; memory retrieval; multi-voxel pattern analysis; proactive interference

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