Competitive Trace Theory: A Role for the Hippocampus in Contextual Interference during Retrieval

Front Behav Neurosci. 2013 Aug 12;7:107. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00107. eCollection 2013.


Much controversy exists regarding the role of the hippocampus in retrieval. The two dominant and competing accounts have been the Standard Model of Systems Consolidation (SMSC) and Multiple Trace Theory (MTT), which specifically make opposing predictions as to the necessity of the hippocampus for retrieval of remote memories. Under SMSC, memories eventually become independent of the hippocampus as they become more reliant on cortical connectivity, and thus the hippocampus is not required for retrieval of remote memories, only recent ones. MTT on the other hand claims that the hippocampus is always required no matter the age of the memory. We argue that this dissociation may be too simplistic, and a continuum model may be better suited to address the role of the hippocampus in retrieval of remote memories. Such a model is presented here with the main function of the hippocampus during retrieval being "recontextualization," or the reconstruction of memory using overlapping traces. As memories get older, they are decontextualized due to competition among partially overlapping traces and become more semantic and reliant on neocortical storage. In this framework dubbed the Competitive Trace Theory (CTT), consolidation events that lead to the strengthening of memories enhance conceptual knowledge (semantic memory) at the expense of contextual details (episodic memory). As a result, remote memories are more likely to have a stronger semantic representation. At the same time, remote memories are also more likely to include illusory details. The CTT is a novel candidate model that may provide some resolution to the memory consolidation debate.

Keywords: competition; episodic memory; interference; multiple trace theory; pattern completion; pattern separation; semantic memory; systems consolidation.