Virtual treasure hunt shows brain maps time sequence of memories

Summary: Using brain scans and virtual reality technology, researchers discover how a temporal map of memories is generated in the entorhinal cortex.

Source: Max Planck Institute

We often have little difficulty in remembering the chronology of events. We can tell others how much time passed between two events and which one occurred first. Apparently, memories of events in the brain are linked when they occur close together. Part of the medial temporal lobe, the entorhinal cortex seems to play an important role. But how exactly does this part of our brain, located close to the amygdala and hippocampus, contribute to building a memory? Using an experiment that combines learning in virtual reality and brain scans, a team of researchers led by Jacob Bellmund and Christian Doeller describes how a temporal map of memories is created in the entorhinal cortex.

To fathom this angle of memory, the scientists had 26 subjects learn a sequence of events by navigating a route through a virtual city. They had to remember when certain objects appeared along the route and where they were in the city. Participants encountered chests along the route, which they were instructed to open. Each chest contained a different object that was displayed on a black screen when the chest was opened.

After learning, the researchers used an MRI scanner to measure how these events were displayed in the brain by showing the participants images of the objects in random order. “Events that occurred in temporal proximity are represented by similar activation patterns in the entorhinal cortex”, explained Jacob Bellmund. “This means that when objects were shown that were temporally close along the route, this part of the brain reacted in a similar way. They were, therefore, more similar to each other than the activation patterns of events that occurred at long intervals.” Thus, the activation patterns of the entorhinal cortex reflected a kind of map of the temporal relationships of events.

The spatial relationships of the events, that is, the distance between the objects as the crow flies, could not be observed by the scientists. A trick was used to study space and time independently: Three teleporters on the route immediately ‘beamed’ the participants to another part of the city, where participants continued navigating the route. “This manipulation enabled us to vary the temporal and spatial distances between pairs of objects so that the spatial distance could be large, but the temporal distance very small”, explained Bellmund.

This shows the VR generated city used in the experiement
Participants learned a sequence of events by navigating a route through a virtual city. The image is credited to MPI CBS/Bellmund.

The participants’ recall of events in a later memory test was influenced by how distinct the temporal map of events in the entorhinal cortex was. They were asked to freely remember all the objects encountered along the route in the order in which they came to mind. Participants with an exact temporal map in the entorhinal cortex recalled events one after the other that occurred in temporal proximity. They listed the objects in order as if they were mentally walking the route again.

Taken together, these findings show that the entorhinal cortex maps the time sequence of events and that this temporal map influences how we retrieve memories. These findings suggest that our brain stores our memories of experiences in a temporally organised way.

About this neuroscience research article

Max Planck Institute
Media Contacts:
Bettina Hennebach – Max Planck Institute
Image Source:
The image is credited to MPI CBS/Bellmund.

Original Research: Open access
“Mapping sequence structure in the human lateral entorhinal cortex”. Jacob LS Bellmund, Lorena Deuker, Christian F Doeller.
eLife. doi:10.7554/eLife.45333


Mapping sequence structure in the human lateral entorhinal cortex

Remembering event sequences is central to episodic memory and presumably supported by the hippocampal-entorhinal region. We previously demonstrated that the hippocampus maps spatial and temporal distances between events encountered along a route through a virtual city (Deuker et al., 2016), but the content of entorhinal mnemonic representations remains unclear. Here, we demonstrate that multi-voxel representations in the anterior-lateral entorhinal cortex (alEC) — the human homologue of the rodent lateral entorhinal cortex — specifically reflect the temporal event structure after learning. Holistic representations of the sequence structure related to memory recall and the timeline of events could be reconstructed from entorhinal multi-voxel patterns. Our findings demonstrate representations of temporal structure in the alEC; dovetailing with temporal information carried by population signals in the lateral entorhinal cortex of navigating rodents and alEC activations during temporal memory retrieval. Our results provide novel evidence for the role of the alEC in representing time for episodic memory.

Feel free to share this Neuroscience News.
Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.