Two kinds of memory signals in neurons of the human hippocampus

Zhisen J. Urgolites, John T. Wixted, Stephen D. Goldinger, Megan H. Papesh, David M. Treiman, Larry R. Squire, Peter N. Steinmetz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Prior studies of the neural representation of episodic memory in the human hippocampus have identified generic memory signals representing the categorical status of test items (novel vs. repeated), whereas other studies have identified item specific memory signals representing individual test items. Here, we report that both kinds of memory signals can be detected in hippocampal neurons in the same experiment. We recorded single-unit activity from four brain regions (hippocampus, amygdala, anterior cingulate, and prefrontal cortex) of epilepsy patients as they completed a continuous recognition task. The generic signal was found in all four brain regions, whereas the item-specific memory signal was detected only in the hippocampus and reflected sparse coding. That is, for the item-specific signal, each hippocampal neuron responded strongly to a small fraction of repeated words, and each repeated word elicited strong responding in a small fraction of neurons. The neural code was sparse, pattern-separated, and limited to the hippocampus, consistent with longstanding computational models. We suggest that the item-specific episodic memory signal in the hippocampus is fundamental, whereas the more widespread generic memory signal is derivative and is likely used by different areas of the brain to perform memory-related functions that do not require item-specific information.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2115128119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number19
StatePublished - May 10 2022


  • episodic memory
  • human hippocampus
  • single-unit activity
  • sparsely coded memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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