Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
A primary function of the medial temporal lobe (MTL) is to signal prior encounter with behaviorally relevant stimuli. MTL match enhancement—increased activation when viewing previously encountered stimuli—has been observed for goal-relevant stimuli in nonhuman primates during delayed-match-to-sample tasks and in humans during more complex relational memory tasks. Match enhancement may alternatively reflect (a) an attentional response to familiar relative to novel stimuli or (b) the retrieval of contextual details surrounding the past encounter with familiar stimuli. To gain leverage on the functional significance of match enhancement in the hippocampus, high-resolution fMRI of human MTL was conducted while participants attended, ignored, or passively viewed face and scene stimuli in the context of a modified delayed-match-to-sample task. On each “attended” trial, two goal-relevant stimuli were encountered before a probe that either matched or mismatched one of the attended stimuli, enabling examination of the consequences of encountering one of the goal-relevant stimuli as a match probe on later memory for the other (nonprobed) goal-relevant stimulus. fMRI revealed that the hippocampus was insensitive to the attentional manipulation, whereas parahippocampal cortex was modulated by scene-directed attention, and perirhinal cortex showed more subtle and general effects of attention. By contrast, all hippocampal subfields demonstrated match enhancement to the probe, and a postscan test revealed more accurate recognition memory for the nonprobed goal-relevant stimulus on match relative to mismatch trials. These data suggest that match enhancement in human hippocampus reflects retrieval of other goal-relevant contextual details surrounding a stimulus's prior encounter.