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Image: IBEC.

The hippocampus orchestrates the cerebral process that allows us to recall memories

For the first time in humans, researchers from the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) at the Barcelona Science Park have simultaneously recorded the brain activity of the two key areas linked to memory: the hippocampus and the neocortex. This study was made possible thanks to the voluntary participation of epilepsy patients who, due to their disease, have intracranial electrode implants. Making use of virtual reality, the participants performed spatial memory tasks. 


The taste of your favourite snack after school, your first kiss, that time you partied until dawn… Memories are a way of travelling into the past. Despite how easy it can be to remember a situation, the cerebral process taking place is complex and continues to be, for the most part, a mystery. What is the biological basis of this mechanism that allows us to “travel through time”?

A study led by Paul Verschure, ICREA Research Professor and head of the Synthetic, Perceptive, Emotive and Cognitive Systems (SPECS) group at Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), and recently published in the journal Nature Communications, investigates a fundamental question about human memory: for the first time it has been shown that the hippocampus is responsible for coordinating the memory recovery process. A hypothesis that, until now, was only considered theoretically.

The key that made this finding possible lies in the volunteers who participated in the study: epilepsy patients who have intracranial electrode implants in order to monitor their disease. “These patients offered us an extraordinary opportunity. Thanks to their implants, we were able to record the neurophysical activity of the hippocampus and neocortex simultaneously, something which no other human study has achieved before”, Verschure points out.

Virtual reality, a great ally for neuroscience

In addition, the study featured an unusual element: virtual reality. “We wanted to see what happens to memory processes when we manipulate the space where they develop”, explains Daniel Pacheco, postdoctoral researcher in the SPECS group at IBEC and first author of the article. “Our experiment allows us to dissociate the existing relationship between an image and the context which surrounds it.”

► More information: IBEC website [+]