Functional MRI investigations of overlapping spatial memories and flexible decision-making in humans
Brown, Thackery I.
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Research in rodents and computational modeling work suggest a critical role for the hippocampus in representing overlapping memories. This thesis tested predictions that the hippocampus is important in humans for remembering overlapping spatial events, and that flexible navigation of spatial routes is supported by key prefrontal and striatal structures operating in conjunction with the hippocampus. The three experiments described in this dissertation used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in healthy young people to examine brain activity during context-dependent navigation of virtual maze environments. Experiment 1 tested whether humans recruit the hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex to successfully retrieve well-learned overlapping spatial routes. Participants navigated familiar virtual maze environments during fMRI scanning. Brain activity for flexible retrieval of overlapping spatial memories was contrasted with activity for retrieval of distinct non-overlapping memories. Results demonstrate the hippocampus is more strongly recruited for planning and retrieval of overlapping routes than non-overlapping routes, and the orbitofrontal cortex is recruited specifically for context-dependent navigational decisions. Experiment 2 examined whether the hippocampus, orbitofrontal cortex, and striatum interact cooperatively to support flexible navigation of overlapping routes. Using a functional connectivity analysis of fMRI data, we compared interactions between these structures during virtual navigation of overlapping and non-overlapping mazes. Results demonstrate the hippocampus interacts with the caudate more strongly for navigating overlapping than non-overlapping routes. Both structures cooperate with the orbitofrontal cortex specifically during context-dependent decision points, suggesting the orbitofrontal cortex mediates translation of contextual information into the flexible selection of behavior. Experiment 3 examined whether the hippocampus and caudate contribute to forming context-dependent memories. fMRI activity for learning new virtual mazes which overlap with familiar routes was compared with activity for learning completely distinct routes. Results demonstrate both the hippocampus and caudate are preferentially recruited for learning mazes which overlap with existing route memories. Furthermore, both areas update their responses to familiar route memories which become context-dependent, suggesting complementary roles in both learning and updating overlapping representations. Together, these studies demonstrate that navigational decisions based on overlapping representations rely on a network incorporating hippocampal function with the evaluation and selection of behavior in the prefrontal cortex and striatum.
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