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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

March 2010, Vol. 22, No. 3, Pages 602-613
(doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21212)
© 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Memory Repression: Brain Mechanisms underlying Dissociative Amnesia
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Dissociative amnesia usually follows a stressful event and cannot be attributable to explicit brain damage. It is thought to reflect a reversible deficit in memory retrieval probably due to memory repression. However, the neural mechanisms underlying this condition are not clear. We used fMRI to investigate neural activity associated with memory retrieval in two patients with dissociative amnesia. For each patient, three categories of face photographs and three categories of people's names corresponding to the photographs were prepared: those of “recognizable” high school friends who were acquainted with and recognizable to the patients, those of “unrecognizable” colleagues who were actually acquainted with but unrecognizable to the patients due to their memory impairments, and “control” distracters who were unacquainted with the patients. During fMRI, the patients were visually presented with these stimuli and asked to indicate whether they were personally acquainted with them. In the comparison of the unrecognizable condition with the recognizable condition, we found increased activity in the pFC and decreased activity in the hippocampus in both patients. After treatment for retrograde amnesia, the altered pattern of brain activation disappeared in one patient whose retrograde memories were recovered, whereas it remained unchanged in the other patient whose retrograde memories were not recovered. Our findings provide direct evidence that memory repression in dissociative amnesia is associated with an altered pattern of neural activity, and they suggest the possibility that the pFC has an important role in inhibiting the activity of the hippocampus in memory repression.