3

Functions of the Hippocampus

• Cognitive Processing:

• Memory Consolidation

FIGURE 1 Summary of functions of the hippocampus.

distinguish between memory consolidation and memory storage. The hippocampus generally does not store information for extended periods of time but rather serves as an intermediate-duration memory buffer that is involved in maintaining memories until they are transferred for more permanent storage in various regions of the cerebral cortex. This is referred to as consolidation of memories, that is, consolidation is the process by which memories are converted to very long-lasting forms.

Keep in mind that shorter-term memories undergo consolidation as well. The hippocampus is clearly involved in the consolidation of memories lasting from 24 hours to a lifetime, and it is also likely involved in the consolidation of memories of even shorter duration. This implies that there may be multiple hippocampus-dependent memory consolidation processes that subserve memories of various durations— this is an open question at this time.

Note that the first three functions (space, time, relationships) can conceptually be considered very differently from the fourth function (consolidation). The first three functions are related to real-time information processing, perception of environmental stimuli, and cognition in general. This information processing role of the hippocampus can be considered independently of the specific memory formation aspect of its role in memory consolidation. As a first approximation, it may be useful to think of the first three functions as what is going on inside the hippocampus on a minute-to-minute basis, while thinking of the memory consolidation function as what happens to allow the hippocampus to later send its processed messages outside to other parts of the brain for long-term storage.

This overview of the four general functions of the hippocampus will prepare us for the next chapter, where we will begin to discuss synaptic plasticity in the hippocam-pal circuit and its attendant cellular physiology. This is in order to begin to explore how the hippocampus achieves its various functions as a signal integrator and as a cellular memory store for subsequent downloading of information to the longer-term storage areas of the cortex. In this chapter, we will talk about what the hippocampus does; in the next chapter and for most of the rest of the book, we will discuss current ideas about how it does it.

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