Episodic memory is the binding of an event with information about the context in which that event (or item) was experienced. The context of an event may include its spatial and temporal location as well as goal-directed, conscious thoughts evoked during the event. We call this latter type of information cognitive context. The binding of items and context (BIC) theory of medial temporal lobe function proposes that the parahippocampal cortex (PHc) plays a key role in processing cognitive context. Therefore, we predicted that activity in the PHc during reactivation of a previously experienced cognitive context would be correlated with item recollection, even when the associated item and its episodic binding had not yet been retrieved. Using a novel paradigm, we measured brain activation with functional magnetic resonance imaging in response to covert reinstatement of a cognitive context, prior to presenting an item memory probe. Contexts were studied with multiple items to ensure that spontaneous item retrieval would not occur prior to the test probe. At test, contexts were reinstated for 8 s before the test probe was presented. We manipulated whether the reinstated context matched the encoding context of the test probe that followed. For such matching contexts, we found that increased PHc activation prior to the test probe predicted recollection following the test probe. If a context unrelated to the eventual test item probe was reinstated, there was no such association between PHc activation during context reinstatement and eventual memory judgments. These findings suggest that PHc activation is correlated with cognitive context retrieval.
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