New York University Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Navigation Skip to Sub Navigation

NYU Researchers Isolate Portion of the Brain Needed to Link Experiences in Forming Memories

July 29, 2009
N-517, 2008-09

New York University researchers have determined that the brain’s hippocampus is important for linking together individual elements of our experiences in order to form memories. Their study, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Neuron, helps to illuminate how something as complex as our memories arises out of a much more simple process of bridging gaps in experience. It may have implications for treating memory-related dysfunction arising from aging, Alzheimer’s Disease, or amnesia.

In order to transform an experience into a memory, the individual, disparate elements of that experience that unfold across space and time need to be somehow linked into a singular memory. Researchers have previously determined that the brain’s hippocampus, which is located in the medial temporal lobe, plays a significant role in memory. But its contributions to linking together individual experiences into a larger, singular memory-or associative memory-had not been well understood.

The NYU researchers, Lila Davachi, an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and its Center for Neural Science, and a graduate student in her laboratory, Bernhard Staresina, sought to determine if the hippocampus served as the “glue” needed to connect disparate elements of our experiences in memory.

To explore this dynamic, the study’s subjects were shown a series of visuals composed of different elements-e.g., an object and a background color. Subjects were then asked to recall the object separately and in combination with its associated color. Under some conditions, subjects could only recall the previously presented object (unlinked memory); under others, they were able to remember both the object and its associated color (a linked memory).

The researchers then examined how these memories were encoded by the brain. To do this, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which gauged which parts of the brain were active under both the unlinked and linked memory conditions. Their results showed that there was significant hippocampus activity when the subjects successfully formed linked memories, but not when the elements were separately encoded.

“Our results show that a core function of the hippocampus is the capacity to bridge gaps between elements of our experiences so that we may later remember them,” explained Davachi. “But they may also explain the role of this portion of brain more broadly in memory and cognition. All kinds of functions, such as spatial navigation, memory, and vivid imagery, depend upon the ability to bridge gaps in our experience and thoughts. If the hippocampus is the glue that holds together our experiences, this can explain the role of this region in other forms of memory and thought.”

The researchers added that the findings may have relevance to understanding, then combating, memory-related afflictions such as age-related memory impairment and Alzheimer’s Disease.

“As we learn more about how the brain forms memories, we can better understand what makes them go awry and then explore behavioral and neurological remedies,” explained Davachi.

This Press Release is in the following Topics:
Graduate School of Arts and Science, Research

Type: Press Release

The brain's hippocampus plays a fundamental role in memory formation.

The brain's hippocampus plays a fundamental role in memory formation.

Search News

NYU In the News

NYU Offers Financial Aid to Undocumented Students

The Wall Street Journal reported that NYU will begin offering scholarship aid to undocumented students for the school year beginning next September.

NYU Adopts Lean LaunchPad Program to Teach Entrepreneurship

Startup guru Steve Blank, in a Huffington Post blog, described how NYU adopted the Lean LaunchPad model to teach entrepreneurship to students and faculty at NYU.

Biology Professor Jane Carlton Examines Wastewater for the City’s Microbiome

The New York Times’ Science Times column “Well” profiled Biology Professor Jane Carlton and her research project to sequence microbiome of New York City by examining wastewater samples.

Steinhardt Professors Use a Play as Therapy

The New York Times wrote about a play written by Steinhardt Music Professor Robert Landy about the relationship between Adjunct Professor Cecilia Dintino, a clinical psychologist in the Drama Therapy Program, and a patient, former Broadway actress Jill Powell.

NYU Public Health Experts Urge Strengthening Local Health Systems to Combat Ebola

Dean Cheryl Healton of the Global Institute of Public Health and Public Health Professor Christopher Dickey wrote an op-ed in the Huffington Post saying international health agencies need to strengthen their presence in countries at the local level to prevent future ebola outbreaks.

NYU Footer