Oscillatory patterns in temporal lobe reveal context reinstatement during memory search

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Aug 2;108(31):12893-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1015174108. Epub 2011 Jul 7.


Psychological theories of memory posit that when people recall a past event, they not only recover the features of the event itself, but also recover information associated with other events that occurred nearby in time. The events surrounding a target event, and the thoughts they evoke, may be considered to represent a context for the target event, helping to distinguish that event from similar events experienced at different times. The ability to reinstate this contextual information during memory search has been considered a hallmark of episodic, or event-based, memory. We sought to determine whether context reinstatement may be observed in electrical signals recorded from the human brain during episodic recall. Analyzing electrocorticographic recordings taken as 69 neurosurgical patients studied and recalled lists of words, we uncovered a neural signature of context reinstatement. Upon recalling a studied item, we found that the recorded patterns of brain activity were not only similar to the patterns observed when the item was studied, but were also similar to the patterns observed during study of neighboring list items, with similarity decreasing reliably with positional distance. The degree to which individual patients displayed this neural signature of context reinstatement was correlated with their tendency to recall neighboring list items successively. These effects were particularly strong in temporal lobe recordings. Our findings show that recalling a past event evokes a neural signature of the temporal context in which the event occurred, thus pointing to a neural basis for episodic memory.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Algorithms
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Child
  • Cues
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Epilepsy / physiopathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Mental Recall / physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Temporal Lobe / physiopathology*
  • Word Association Tests
  • Young Adult