The role of the hippocampus in recognition memory

Cortex. 2017 Aug:93:155-165. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2017.05.016. Epub 2017 Jun 1.


Many theories of declarative memory propose that it is supported by partially separable processes underpinned by different brain structures. The hippocampus plays a critical role in binding together item and contextual information together and processing the relationships between individual items. By contrast, the processing of individual items and their later recognition can be supported by extrahippocampal regions of the medial temporal lobes (MTL), particularly when recognition is based on feelings of familiarity without the retrieval of any associated information. These theories are domain-general in that "items" might be words, faces, objects, scenes, etc. However, there is mixed evidence that item recognition does not require the hippocampus, or that familiarity-based recognition can be supported by extrahippocampal regions. By contrast, there is compelling evidence that in humans, hippocampal damage does not affect recognition memory for unfamiliar faces, whilst recognition memory for several other stimulus classes is impaired. I propose that regions outside of the hippocampus can support recognition of unfamiliar faces because they are perceived as discrete items and have no prior conceptual associations. Conversely, extrahippocampal processes are inadequate for recognition of items which (a) have been previously experienced, (b) are conceptually meaningful, or (c) are perceived as being comprised of individual elements. This account reconciles findings from primate and human studies of recognition memory. Furthermore, it suggests that while the hippocampus is critical for binding and relational processing, these processes are required for item recognition memory in most situations.

Keywords: Anterograde amnesia; Declarative memory; Episodic memory; Neuropsychology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amnesia / physiopathology
  • Animals
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology