Functional brain imaging of episodic memory decline in ageing

J Intern Med. 2017 Jan;281(1):65-74. doi: 10.1111/joim.12533. Epub 2016 Jul 25.


The episodic long-term memory system supports remembering of events. It is considered to be the most age-sensitive system, with an average onset of decline around 60 years of age. However, there is marked interindividual variability, such that some individuals show faster than average change and others show no or very little change. This variability may be related to the risk of developing dementia, with elevated risk for individuals with accelerated episodic memory decline. Brain imaging with functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) signalling or positron emission tomography (PET) has been used to reveal the brain bases of declining episodic memory in ageing. Several studies have demonstrated a link between age-related episodic memory decline and the hippocampus during active mnemonic processing, which is further supported by studies of hippocampal functional connectivity in the resting state. The hippocampus interacts with anterior and posterior neocortical regions to support episodic memory, and alterations in hippocampus-neocortex connectivity have been shown to contribute to impaired episodic memory. Multimodal MRI studies and more recently hybrid MRI/PET studies allow consideration of various factors that can influence the association between the hippocampal BOLD signal and memory performance. These include neurovascular factors, grey and white matter structural alterations, dopaminergic neurotransmission, amyloid-Β and glucose metabolism. Knowledge about the brain bases of episodic memory decline can guide interventions to strengthen memory in older adults, particularly in those with an elevated risk of developing dementia, with promising results for combinations of cognitive and physical stimulation.

Keywords: ageing; brain imaging; connectivity; cortex; hippocampus; memory; resting-state.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aging / pathology*
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Hippocampus / diagnostic imaging
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Hippocampus / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Memory, Episodic*