The pivotal role of the hippocampus for spatial memory is well-established. However, while neurophysiological and imaging studies suggest a specialization of the hippocampus for viewpoint-independent or allocentric memory, results from human lesion studies have been less conclusive. It is currently unclear whether disproportionate impairment in allocentric memory tasks reflects impairment of cognitive functions that are not sufficiently supported by regions outside the medial temporal lobe or whether the deficits observed in some studies are due to experimental factors. Here, we have investigated whether hippocampal contributions to spatial memory depend on the spatial references that are available in a certain behavioral context. Patients with medial temporal lobe lesions affecting systematically the right hippocampal formation performed a series of three oculomotor tasks that required memory of a spatial cue either in retinal coordinates or relative to a single environmental reference across a delay of 5000 ms. Stimulus displays varied the availability of spatial references and contained no complex visuo-spatial associations. Patients showed a selective impairment in a condition that critically depended on memory of the geometric relationship between spatial cue and environmental reference. We infer that regions of the medial temporal lobe, most likely the hippocampal formation, contribute to behavior in conditions that exceed the potential of viewpoint-dependent or egocentric representations. Apparently, this already applies to short-term memory of simple geometric relationships and does not necessarily depend on task difficulty or integration of landmarks into more complex representations. Deficient memory of basic geometric relationships may represent a core deficit that contributes to impaired performance in allocentric spatial memory tasks.
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