A critical role of the human hippocampus in an electrophysiological measure of implicit memory

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Abstract

The hippocampus has traditionally been thought to be critical for conscious explicit memory but not necessary for unconscious implicit memory processing. In a recent study of a group of mild amnesia patients with evidence of MTL damage limited to the hippocampus, subjects were tested on a direct test of item recognition confidence while electroencephalogram (EEG) was acquired, and revealed intact measures of explicit memory from 400 to 600 ms (mid-frontal old–new effect, FN400). The current investigation re-analyzed this data to study event-related potentials (ERPs) of implicit memory, using a recently developed procedure that eliminated declarative memory differences. Prior ERP findings from this technique were first replicated in two independent matched control groups, which exhibited reliable implicit memory effects in posterior scalp regions from 400 to 600 ms, which were topographically dissociated from the explicit memory effects of familiarity. However, patients were found to be dramatically impaired in implicit memory effects relative to control subjects, as quantified by a reliable condition × group interaction. Several control analyses were conducted to consider alternative factors that could account for the results, including outliers, sample size, age, or contamination by explicit memory, and each of these factors was systematically ruled out. Results suggest that the hippocampus plays a fundamental role in aspects of memory processing that are beyond conscious awareness. The current findings therefore indicate that both memory systems of implicit and explicit memory may rely upon the same neural structures – but function in different physiological ways.

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