A primary research focus is to specify the cognitive processes and neural mechanisms mediating relational memory – the form of memory which represents relationships among items or informational elements. In everyday life, relational memory processes play a critical role in linking or binding together the cognitive, emotional, and contextual components of a learning event.
Neuroscientific research has established that the hippocampal formation, a structure within the medial temporal lobe, plays a critical role in memory for facts and events (declarative memory). However, its precise role remains unclear. Our research examines: (1) whether the hippocampus has a special role in relating or binding together previously unrelated pieces of information, (2) whether distinct regions along the long axis of the hippocampus make unique contributions to relational memory, and (3) whether memory for relational information is processed differently at implicit, as compared to explicit, levels of awareness.
Although item memory and relational memory are sensitive to the deleterious effects of aging, age effects are nearly twice as large for relational, than for item, information. Furthermore, age-related deficits may be less pronounced on tasks that require processing of two distinct items (inter-item associations) and more pronounced on tasks that require processing of an item and its context (e.g., intra-item associations). We are investigating how the cognitive processes and neural mechanisms mediating relational memory change in healthy aging. We are particularly interested in examining: (1) whether hippocampal function in older adults shows the same specificity for relational memory as in young adults, (2) whether the neural underpinnings differ for inter-, as compared to intra-, item associations as people age, and (3) whether providing environmental support (i.e., strategies) at encoding effects age-related neural activity.