Although results from cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, and behavioral neuroscience clearly suggest that item and associative information in memory rely on partly different brain regions, little is known concerning the differences and similarities that exist between these two types of information as a function of memory stage (i.e., encoding and retrieval). We used event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess neural correlates of item and associative encoding and retrieval of simple images in 18 healthy subjects. During encoding, subjects memorized items and pairs. During retrieval, subjects made item recognition judgments (old vs. new) and associative recognition judgments (intact vs. rearranged). Relative to baseline, item and associative trials activated bilateral medial temporal and prefrontal regions during both encoding and retrieval. Direct contrasts were then performed between item and associative trials for each memory stage. During encoding, greater prefrontal, hippocampal, and parietal activation was observed for associations, but no significant activation was observed for items at the selected threshold. During recognition, greater activation was observed for associative trials in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and superior parietal lobules bilaterally, whereas item recognition trials showed greater activation of bilateral frontal regions, bilateral anterior medial temporal areas, and the right temporo-parietal junction. Post hoc analyses suggested that the anterior medial temporal activation observed during item recognition was driven mainly by new items, confirming a role for this structure in novelty detection. These results suggest that although some structures such as the medial temporal and prefrontal cortex play a general role in memory, the pattern of activation in these regions can be modulated by the type of information (items or associations) interacting with memory stages.

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