Take-home message: We show here that mixing tasks that involve executive control (the n-back task, requiring continual updating and discarding of information held presently ‘in mind’) inhibits dramatically performance on an explicit memory task (associative memory: face-name pair learning), but not performance on control recognition memory tasks. We therefore provide further behavioural evidence that memory subsystems are dissociable, AND that they can mutually inhibit each other. [Download the paper]
PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e50814. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0050814. Epub 2013 Jan 16.
Suppressing the encoding of new information in memory: a behavioral study derived from principles of hippocampal function.
Cognitive processes do not occur in isolation. Interactions between cognitive processes can be observed as a cost in performance following a switch between tasks, a cost that is greatest when the cognitive requirements of the sequential tasks compete. Interestingly, the long-term mnemonic goals associated with specific cognitive tasks can also directly compete. For example, encoding the sequential order in which stimuli are presented in the commonly-utilised 2-Back working memory (WM) tasks is counter-productive to task performance, as this task requires the continual updating of the contents of one’s current mental set. Performance of this task consistently results in reduced activity within the medial temporal lobe (MTL), and this response is believed to reflect the inhibitory mnemonic component of the task. Conversely, there are numerous cognitive paradigms in which participants are explicitly instructed to encode incoming information and performance of these tasks reliably increases MTL activity. Here, we explore the behavioural cost of sequentially performing two tasks with conflicting long-term mnemonic goals and contrasting neural profiles within the MTL. We hypothesised that performing the 2-Back WM prior to a hippocampal-dependent memory task would impair performance on the latter task. We found that participants who performed the 2-Back WM task, prior to the encoding of novel verbal/face-name stimuli, recollected significantly fewer of these stimuli, compared to those who had performed a 0-Back control task. Memory processes believed to be independent of the MTL were unaffected. Our results suggest that the inhibition of MTL-dependent mnemonic function persists beyond the cessation of the 2-Back WM task and can alter performance on entirely separate and subsequently performed memory tasks. Furthermore, they indicate that performance of such tasks may induce a temporarily-sustained, virtual lesion of the hippocampus, which could be used as a probe to explore cognitive processes in the absence of hippocampal involvement.