Not so fast: hippocampal amnesia slows word learning despite successful fast mapping

Hippocampus. 2014 Aug;24(8):920-33. doi: 10.1002/hipo.22279. Epub 2014 Apr 29.


The human hippocampus is widely believed to be necessary for the rapid acquisition of new declarative relational memories. However, processes supporting on-line inferential word use ("fast mapping") may also exercise a dissociable learning mechanism and permit rapid word learning without the hippocampus (Sharon et al. (2011) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108:1146-1151). We investigated fast mapping in severely amnesic patients with hippocampal damage (N = 4), mildly amnesic patients (N = 6), and healthy comparison participants (N = 10) using on-line measures (eye movements) that reflected ongoing processing. All participants studied unique word-picture associations in two encoding conditions. In the explicit-encoding condition, uncommon items were paired with their names (e.g., "This is a numbat."). In the fast mapping study condition, participants heard an instruction using a novel word (e.g., "Click on the numbat.") while two items were presented (an uncommon target such as a numbat, and a common distracter such as a dog). All groups performed fast mapping well at study, and on-line eye movement measures did not reveal group differences. However, while comparison participants showed robust word learning irrespective of encoding condition, severely amnesic patients showed no evidence of learning after fast mapping or explicit encoding on any behavioral or eye-movement measure. Mildly amnesic patients showed some learning, but performance was unaffected by encoding condition. The findings are consistent with the following propositions: the hippocampus is not essential for on-line fast mapping of novel words; but is necessary for the rapid learning of arbitrary relational information irrespective of encoding conditions.

Keywords: hippocampus; lexicon; medial temporal lobe; memory; vocabulary.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Amnesia / physiopathology*
  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Eye Movement Measurements
  • Eye Movements
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reading
  • Semantics*
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Speech Perception / physiology*