The neurobiological foundation of memory retrieval

Nat Neurosci. 2019 Oct;22(10):1576-1585. doi: 10.1038/s41593-019-0493-1. Epub 2019 Sep 24.


Memory retrieval involves the interaction between external sensory or internally generated cues and stored memory traces (or engrams) in a process termed 'ecphory'. While ecphory has been examined in human cognitive neuroscience research, its neurobiological foundation is less understood. To the extent that ecphory involves 'reawakening' of engrams, leveraging recently developed technologies that can identify and manipulate engrams in rodents provides a fertile avenue for examining retrieval at the level of neuronal ensembles. Here we evaluate emerging neuroscientific research of this type, using cognitive theory as a guiding principle to organize and interpret initial findings. Our Review highlights the critical interaction between engrams and retrieval cues (environmental or artificial) for memory accessibility and retrieval success. These findings also highlight the intimate relationship between the mechanisms important in forming engrams and those important in their recovery, as captured in the cognitive notion of 'encoding specificity'. Finally, we identify several questions that currently remain unanswered.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cognitive Science
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Neurobiology*