Limbic systems for emotion and for memory, but no single limbic system

Cortex. 2015 Jan;62:119-57. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2013.12.005. Epub 2013 Dec 24.


The concept of a (single) limbic system is shown to be outmoded. Instead, anatomical, neurophysiological, functional neuroimaging, and neuropsychological evidence is described that anterior limbic and related structures including the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala are involved in emotion, reward valuation, and reward-related decision-making (but not memory), with the value representations transmitted to the anterior cingulate cortex for action-outcome learning. In this 'emotion limbic system' a computational principle is that feedforward pattern association networks learn associations from visual, olfactory and auditory stimuli, to primary reinforcers such as taste, touch, and pain. In primates including humans this learning can be very rapid and rule-based, with the orbitofrontal cortex overshadowing the amygdala in this learning important for social and emotional behaviour. Complementary evidence is described showing that the hippocampus and limbic structures to which it is connected including the posterior cingulate cortex and the fornix-mammillary body-anterior thalamus-posterior cingulate circuit are involved in episodic or event memory, but not emotion. This 'hippocampal system' receives information from neocortical areas about spatial location, and objects, and can rapidly associate this information together by the different computational principle of autoassociation in the CA3 region of the hippocampus involving feedback. The system can later recall the whole of this information in the CA3 region from any component, a feedback process, and can recall the information back to neocortical areas, again a feedback (to neocortex) recall process. Emotion can enter this memory system from the orbitofrontal cortex etc., and be recalled back to the orbitofrontal cortex etc. during memory recall, but the emotional and hippocampal networks or 'limbic systems' operate by different computational principles, and operate independently of each other except insofar as an emotional state or reward value attribute may be part of an episodic memory.

Keywords: Amygdala; Cingulate cortex; Emotion; Episodic memory; Hippocampus; Limbic system; Orbitofrontal cortex; Reward value.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Limbic System / physiology*
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology