Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Neurochemical systems are well studied in animal learning; however, ethical issues limit methodologies to explore these systems in humans. Pupillometry provides a glimpse into the brain's neurochemical systems, where pupil dynamics in monkeys have been linked with locus coeruleus (LC) activity, which releases norepinephrine (NE) throughout the brain. Here, we use pupil dynamics as a surrogate measure of neurochemical activity to explore the hypothesis that NE is involved in modulating memory encoding. We examine this using a task-irrelevant learning paradigm in which learning is boosted for stimuli temporally paired with task targets. We show that participants better recognize images that are paired with task targets than distractors and, in correspondence, that pupil size changes more for target-paired than distractor-paired images. To further investigate the hypothesis that NE nonspecifically guides learning for stimuli that are present with its release, a second procedure was used that employed an unexpected sound to activate the LC–NE system and induce pupil-size changes; results indicated a corresponding increase in memorization of images paired with the unexpected sounds. Together, these results suggest a relationship between the LC–NE system, pupil-size changes, and human memory encoding.