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Habit leads to learning, new VA/UCSD study shows

Humans have a "robust" capacity to learn and retain new information unconsciously, retaining so-called habit memory even when conscious or declarative learning is absent, memory experts at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and the San Diego Veterans Affairs Health System report in the July 28, 2005 issue of Nature.

"We know there is habit learning and have studied it extensively in animal models, but we don't understand the process as clearly in humans because our declarative memory is so dominant," said Larry Squire, Ph.D., professor of neurosciences, psychiatry and psychology at the VAMC and UCSD.

Declarative memory is based on active learning and memorization, and is dependent on a region of the brain in the temporal lobe that includes the hippocampus. When the hippocampus and related structures are destroyed, the human patient loses the ability to learn new memories and to access recent memories.

Habit learning occurs when information is stored unconsciously, through repetition and trial-and-error learning. These memories are believed to be retained in a different region of the brain, called the basal ganglia. In monkeys with lesions in the hippocampus, it had been shown that in contrast to humans with similar hippocampal lesions due to injury or disease who have difficulty learning certain tasks over a certain time period, the monkeys can learn the tasks at a normal rate, apparently as habits.

"We have speculated that humans might have the same capacity to acquire habit memory, but that this capability is ordinarily obscured by our excellent capacity to learn by conscious memorization," said Squire.

In the study reported in Nature, two human volunteers with amnesia, called EP and GP, participated in a series of simple object discrimination tasks. Both individuals have severe memory impairment, due to temporal lobe damage caused by herpes simplex encephalitis.

The volunteers were presen
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27-Jul-2005


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