Phase separation of competing memories along the human hippocampal theta rhythm

Casper Kerren*, Sander van Bree, Benjamin Griffiths, Maria Wimber*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Competition between overlapping memories is considered one of the major causes of forgetting, and it is still unknown how the human brain resolves such mnemonic conflict. In the present magnetoencephalography (MEG) study, we empirically tested a computational model that leverages an oscillating inhibition algorithm to minimise overlap between memories. We used a proactive interference task, where a reminder word could be associated with either a single image (non-competitive condition) or two competing images, and participants were asked to always recall the most recently learned word–image association. Time-resolved pattern classifiers were trained to detect the reactivated content of target and competitor memories from MEG sensor patterns, and the timing of these neural reactivations was analysed relative to the phase of the dominant hippocampal 3 Hz theta oscillation. In line with our pre-registered hypotheses, target and competitor reactivations locked to different phases of the hippocampal theta rhythm after several repeated recalls. Participants who behaviourally experienced lower levels of interference also showed larger phase separation between the two overlapping memories. The findings provide evidence that the temporal segregation of memories, orchestrated by slow oscillations, plays a functional role in resolving mnemonic competition by separating and prioritising relevant memories under conditions of high interference.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere80633
Number of pages26
Publication statusPublished - 17 Nov 2022


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