Episodic memory retrieval functionally relies on very rapid reactivation of sensory information

Gerd T Waldhauser, Verena Braun, Simon Hanslmayr

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52 Citations (Scopus)
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Episodic memory retrieval is assumed to rely on the rapid reactivation of sensory information that was present during encoding, a process termed “ecphory.” We investigated the functional relevance of this scarcely understood process in two experiments in human participants. We presented stimuli to the left or right of fixation at encoding, followed by an episodic memory test with centrally presented retrieval cues. This allowed us to track the reactivation of lateralized sensory memory traces during retrieval. Successful episodic retrieval led to a very early (∼100–200 ms) reactivation of lateralized alpha/beta (10–25 Hz) electroencephalographic (EEG) power decreases in the visual cortex contralateral to the visual field at encoding. Applying rhythmic transcranial magnetic stimulation to interfere with early retrieval processing in the visual cortex led to decreased episodic memory performance specifically for items encoded in the visual field contralateral to the site of stimulation. These results demonstrate, for the first time, that episodic memory functionally relies on very rapid reactivation of sensory information.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Remembering personal experiences requires a “mental time travel” to revisit sensory information perceived in the past. This process is typically described as a controlled, relatively slow process. However, by using electroencephalography to measure neural activity with a high time resolution, we show that such episodic retrieval entails a very rapid reactivation of sensory brain areas. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation to alter brain function during retrieval revealed that this early sensory reactivation is causally relevant for conscious remembering. These results give first neural evidence for a functional, preconscious component of episodic remembering. This provides new insight into the nature of human memory and may help in the understanding of psychiatric conditions that involve the automatic intrusion of unwanted memories.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)251-260
JournalThe Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jan 2016


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