Previous neuropsychological and neuroimaging results have implicated the prefrontal cortex in memory retrieval, although its precise role is unclear. In the present study, we examined patterns of brain electrical activity during retrieval of episodic and semantic memories. In the episodic retrieval task, participants retrieved autobiographical memories in response to event cues. In the semantic retrieval task, participants generated exemplars in response to category cues. Novel sounds presented intermittently during memory retrieval elicited a series of brain potentials including one identifiable as the P3a potential. Based on prior research linking P3a with novelty detection and with the frontal lobes, we predicted that P3a would be reduced to the extent that novelty detection and memory retrieval interfere with each other. Results during episodic and semantic retrieval tasks were compared to results during a task in which subjects attended to the auditory stimuli. P3a amplitudes were reduced during episodic retrieval, particularly at right lateral frontal scalp locations. A similar but less lateralized pattern of frontal P3a reduction was observed during semantic retrieval. These findings support the notion that the right prefrontal cortex is engaged in the service of memory retrieval, particularly for episodic memories.

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