hippocampus is historically known for its role in forming memories. Over the past decade, researchers have learned that the
involved in much more than just remembering the past; it plays an
important role in imagining events in the future.
Yet, scientists still
do not know precisely how the hippocampus contributes to episodic
imagining - until now. Researchers from Boston University School of
Medicine (BUSM) have determined the role of the hippocampus in future
imaging lies in the process of constructing a scene in one's mind.
‘There were no differences in hippocampal activity when researchers compared present versus future imaging, but they observed stronger activity in the hippocampus when participants imagined a scene compared to when they did not.’
The findings, which appear in the journal Cerebral Cortex
shed important light on how the brain supports the capacity to imagine
the future and pinpoints the brain regions that provide the critical
ingredients for performing this feat.
The hippocampus is affected by many neurological conditions and
diseases and it also can be compromised during normal aging. Future
thinking is a cognitive ability that is relevant to all humans. It is
needed to plan for what lies ahead, whether to navigate daily life or to
make decisions for major milestones further in the future.
Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, BUSM researchers
performed brain scans on healthy adults while they were imagining
events. They then compared brain activity in the hippocampus when
participants answered questions pertaining to the present or the future.
After that, they compared brain activity when participants answered
questions about the future that did or did not require imagining a
"We observed no differences in hippocampal activity when we
compared present versus future imaging, but we did observe stronger
activity in the hippocampus when participants imagined a scene compared
to when they did not, suggesting a role for the hippocampus in scene
construction but not mental time travel," explained corresponding author
Daniela Palombo, postdoctoral fellow in the memory Disorders
Research Center at BUSM and at the VA Boston Healthcare System.
According to the researchers the importance of studying how the
hippocampus contributes to cognitive abilities is bolstered by the
ubiquity of hippocampal involvement in many conditions. "These findings
help provide better understanding of the role of the hippocampus in
future thinking in the normal brain, and may eventually help us better
understand the nature of cognitive loss in individuals with compromised
hippocampal function," she added.
Palombo believes that once knowledge about which aspects of
future imagining are and are not dependent on the hippocampus, targeted
rehabilitation strategies can be designed that exploit those functions
that survive hippocampal dysfunction and may provide alternate routes to
engage in future thinking.