The hippocampus is thought to support association-memory, particularly when tested with cued recall. One of the most well-known and studied factors that influences accuracy of verbal association-memory is imageability; participants remember pairs of high-imageability words better than pairs of low-imageability words. High-imageability words are also remembered better in tests of item-memory. However, we previously found that item-memory effects could not explain the enhancement in cued recall, suggesting that imageability enhances association-memory strength. Here we report an fMRI study designed to ask, what is the role of the hippocampus in the memory advantage for associations due to imageability? We tested two alternative hypotheses: (1) Recruitment Hypothesis: High-imageability pairs are remembered better because they recruit the underlying hippocampal association-memory function more effectively. Alternatively, (2) Bypassing Hypothesis: Imageability functions by making the association-forming process easier, enhancing memory in a way that bypasses the hippocampus, as has been found, for example, with explicit unitization imagery strategies. Results found, first, hippocampal BOLD signal was greater during study and recall of high- than low-imageability word pairs. Second, the difference in activity between recalled and forgotten pairs showed a main effect, but no significant interaction with imageability, challenging the bypassing hypothesis, but consistent with the predictions derived from the recruitment hypothesis. Our findings suggest that certain stimulus properties, like imageability, may leverage, rather than avoid, the associative function of the hippocampus to support superior association-memory.

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