This study examined the involvement of medial temporal lobe, especially the hippocampus, in processing spatial and nonspatial relations using episodic and semantic versions of a relational judgment task. Participants studied object arrays and were tested on different types of relations between pairs of objects. Three prevalent views of hippocampal function were considered. Cognitive map theory (O'Keefe and Nadel (1978) The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map. USA: Oxford University Press) emphasizes hippocampal involvement in spatial relational tasks. Multiple trace theory (Nadel and Moscovitch (1997) Memory consolidation, retrograde amnesia and the hippocampal complex Curr Opin Neurobiol 7:217-227) emphasizes hippocampal involvement in episodic tasks. Eichenbaum and Cohen's ((2001) From Conditioning to Conscious Recollection: Memory Systems of the Brain. USA: Oxford University Press) relational theory predicts equivalent hippocampal involvement in all relational tasks within both semantic and episodic memory. The fMRI results provided partial support for all three theories, though none of them fit the data perfectly. We observed hippocampal activation during all relational tasks, with increased activation for spatial compared to nonspatial relations, and for episodic compared to semantic relations. The placement of activation along the anterior-posterior axis of the hippocampus also differentiated the conditions. We suggest a view of hippocampal function in memory that incorporates aspects of all three theories.
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