Memory integration in amnesia: Prior knowledge supports verbal short-term memory

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Abstract

Short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM) have traditionally been considered cognitively distinct. However, it is known that STM can improve when to-be-remembered information appears in contexts that make contact with prior knowledge, suggesting a more interactive relationship between STM and LTM. The current study investigated whether the ability to leverage LTM in support of STM critically depends on the integrity of the hippocampus. Specifically, we investigated whether the hippocampus differentially supports between-domain versus within-domain STM–LTM integration given prior evidence that the representational domain of the elements being integrated in memory is a critical determinant of whether memory performance depends on the hippocampus. In Experiment 1, we investigated hippocampal contributions to within-domain STM–LTM integration by testing whether immediate verbal recall of words improves in MTL amnesic patients when words are presented in familiar verbal contexts (meaningful sentences) compared to unfamiliar verbal contexts (random word lists). Patients demonstrated a robust sentence superiority effect, whereby verbal STM performance improved in familiar compared to unfamiliar verbal contexts, and the magnitude of this effect did not differ from that in controls. In Experiment 2, we investigated hippocampal contributions to between-domain STM–LTM integration by testing whether immediate verbal recall of digits improves in MTL amnesic patients when digits are presented in a familiar visuospatial context (a typical keypad layout) compared to an unfamiliar visuospatial context (a random keypad layout). Immediate verbal recall improved in both patients and controls when digits were presented in the familiar compared to the unfamiliar keypad array, indicating a preserved ability to integrate activated verbal information with stored visuospatial knowledge. Together, these results demonstrate that immediate verbal recall in amnesia can benefit from two distinct types of semantic support, verbal and visuospatial, and that the hippocampus is not critical for leveraging stored semantic knowledge to improve memory performance.

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