Using virtual reality to identify brain areas involved in memory

Using virtual reality to identify brain areas involved in memory
UC Davis neuroscientists are using virtual reality to investigate how memories are organized. Graduate student Halle Dimsdale-Zucker showed subjects movies created with virtual sketching software and asked them questions about objects inside the houses. She was able to show that different regions of a brain structure called the hippocampus play different roles in remembering items in context. Credit: Halle Dimsdale-Zucker, UC Davis

Virtual reality is helping neuroscientists at the University of California, Davis, get new insight into how different brain areas assemble memories in context.

In a study published Jan. 18 in the journal Nature Communications, graduate student Halle Dimsdale-Zucker and colleagues used a environment to train subjects, then showed that different areas of the are activated for different types of memories.

It's well known that one can trigger related memories. We remember specific events with context—when and where it happened, who was there. Different memories can have specific context, as well as information that is the same between memories—for example, events that occurred in the same location.

Dimsdale-Zucker and Professor Charan Ranganath at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and Department of Psychology are interested in how the brain assembles all the pieces of these memories. They use imaging, or fMRI, to look for brain areas that are activated as memories are recalled, especially in the hippocampus, a small structure in the center of the brain.

For this study, Dimsdale-Zucker used architectural sketching software to build houses in a 3-D virtual environment. The subjects watched a series of videos in which they went into one house then another. In each video, different objects were positioned within the houses. The subjects therefore memorized the objects in two contexts: which video (episodic memory) and which house (spatial memory).

Credit: Halle Dimsdale-Zucker, UC Davis

In the second phase of the study, the subjects were asked to try to remember the objects while they were scanned by fMRI.

Being asked about the objects spontaneously reactivated contextual information, Dimsdale-Zucker said. Different regions of the hippocampus were activated for different kinds of information: One area, CA1, was associated with representing shared information about contexts (e.g., objects that were in the same video); another, distinct area was linked to representing differences in context.

"What's exciting is that it is intuitive that you can remember a unique experience, but the hippocampus is also involved in linking similar experiences," Dimsdale-Zucker said. "You need both to be able to remember."

Another interesting finding was that in this study, the hippocampus was involved in linking both time and space, she said. Conventional thinking has been that the hippocampus codes primarily for spatial memories, for example those involved in navigation.

Virtual reality makes it possible to carry out controlled laboratory experiments with episodic memory, Dimsdale-Zucker said. A better understanding of how memories are formed, stored and recalled could eventually lead to better diagnosis and treatment for memory problems in aging or degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.


Explore further

What happened when? How the brain stores memories by time

More information: Halle R. Dimsdale-Zucker et al, CA1 and CA3 differentially support spontaneous retrieval of episodic contexts within human hippocampal subfields, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-02752-1
Journal information: Nature Communications

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Jan 26, 2018
Videos are not Virtual Reality, it's just a video of a room. This is especially ridiculous when it could have been done in actual virtual reality.

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