How odors help make multimodal memories

Neurobiologists have long puzzled over the neural machinery by which a memory integrates recall of sights, smells, tastes, and sounds. Now, Jay Gottfried and his colleagues have performed brain activity mapping that reveals new details of how "the recollection of a seaside holiday may conjure up the sight of a beach umbrella, the sound of crashing surf, and the smell of brackish seaweed."

While researches know that the hippocampus acts to associate sensory memories into a coherent whole, they know little about how the sensory-related brain regions contribute to that association.

Specifically, Gottfried and his colleagues sought to find out whether the brain's olfactory centers contribute to reconstructing multisensory memories. While other researchers have found that the visual and auditory brain regions were activated during memories of pictures and sounds, it wasn't known whether taste and smell brain regions similarly participated in memory association.

In their experiments, the researchers presented human volunteers with random combinations of an odor and the image of an object and asked them to imagine a link or story that associated the two. For example, a subject might smell the aroma of a rose and see a picture of a duck and be asked to invent a link.

Then, as their brains were imaged using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the subjects were presented with a series of both previously seen images and new images. They were not asked about the odors, but only to recall whether they were viewing new or old images.

Gottfried and his colleagues discovered that the subjects' odor-processing brain region, called the piriform cortex, was significantly activated when they saw objects previously associated with odors -- even though the odors were not presented during the image recognition. Also, the subjects' hippocampal areas were activated during the image recognition, as occurs in normal memory recall.

One caveat,

Contact: Heidi Hardman
Cell Press

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