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Keywords:

  • control processes;
  • fMRI;
  • frontal cortex;
  • human

Abstract

Although it is widely known that the prefrontal cortex plays a role in memory, the specific contribution of particular prefrontal regions in mnemonic functions remains controversial. The present investigation examined whether the mid-ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is selectively involved in active memory retrieval in situations in which mnemonic traces are embedded in ambiguous relations and automatic recollection cannot lead to successful retrieval. Thirteen subjects participated in this event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment. Throughout the scanning session, trials belonging to an experimental and a control condition were administered in a pseudorandom fashion. During the encoding phase of any particular trial, subjects were presented with a stimulus-complex that was a combination of a face and a spatial location on the screen. In the experimental active retrieval condition, a question cue following the encoding phase instructed the subjects to retrieve selectively one of the two aspects of the encoded stimulus-complex, i.e. the face or the location. In the control condition, the question cue that followed the encoding phase instructed the subjects simply to recall the initially presented stimulus-complex, so as to be able to make a decision during the test phase based on simple stimulus familiarity. The comparison of the signal obtained during the retrieval phase of these two conditions yielded an increase in activity selective to the right mid-ventrolateral prefrontal region. These results therefore establish a specific link between the mid-ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and active retrieval mechanisms.