Hippocampal Theta Oscillations Support Successful Associative Memory Formation

J Neurosci. 2020 Dec 2;40(49):9507-9518. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0767-20.2020. Epub 2020 Nov 6.


Models of memory formation posit that episodic memory formation depends critically on the hippocampus, which binds features of an event to its context. For this reason, the contrast between study items that are later recollected with their associative pair versus those for which no association is made fails should reveal electrophysiological patterns in the hippocampus selectively involved in associative memory encoding. Extensive data from studies in rodents support a model in which theta oscillations fulfill this role, but results in humans have not been as clear. Here, we used an associative recognition memory procedure to identify hippocampal correlates of successful associative memory encoding and retrieval in patients (10 females and 9 males) undergoing intracranial EEG monitoring. We identified a dissociation between 2-5 Hz and 5-9 Hz theta oscillations, by which power increases in 2-5 Hz oscillations were uniquely linked with successful associative memory in both the anterior and posterior hippocampus. These oscillations exhibited a significant phase reset that also predicted successful associative encoding and distinguished recollected from nonrecollected items at retrieval, as well as contributing to relatively greater reinstatement of encoding-related patterns for recollected versus nonrecollected items. Our results provide direct electrophysiological evidence that 2-5 Hz hippocampal theta oscillations preferentially support the formation of associative memories, although we also observed memory-related effects in the 5-9 Hz frequency range using measures such as phase reset and reinstatement of oscillatory activity.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Models of episodic memory encoding predict that theta oscillations support the formation of interitem associations. We used an associative recognition task designed to elicit strong hippocampal activation to test this prediction in human neurosurgical patients implanted with intracranial electrodes. The findings suggest that 2-5 Hz theta oscillatory power and phase reset in the hippocampus are selectively associated with associative memory judgments. Furthermore, reinstatement of oscillatory patterns in the hippocampus was stronger for successful recollection. Collectively, the findings support a role for hippocampal theta oscillations in human associative memory.

Keywords: associative recognition; episodic memory; hippocampus; intracranial electroencephalography.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Electrocorticography
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory Consolidation / physiology*
  • Memory, Episodic
  • Mental Recall / physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Theta Rhythm / physiology*
  • Young Adult