Encoding contributions to mnemonic discrimination and its age-related decline
Pidgeon, Laura Marie
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Many items encoded into episodic memory are highly similar – seeing a stranger’s car may result in a memory representation which overlaps in many features with the memory of your friend’s car. To avoid falsely recognising the novel but similar car, it is important for the representations to be distinguished in memory. Even in healthy young adults failures of this mnemonic discrimination lead relatively often to false recognition, and such errors become substantially more frequent in older age. Whether an item’s representation is discriminated from similar memory representations depends critically on how it is encoded. However, the precise encoding mechanisms involved remain poorly understood. Establishing the determinants of successful mnemonic discrimination is essential for future research into strategies or interventions to prevent recognition errors, particularly in the context of age-related decline. A fuller understanding of age-related decline in mnemonic discrimination can also inform basic models of memory. This thesis evaluated the contribution of encoding processes to mnemonic discrimination both in young adults and in ageing, within the framework of two prominent accounts of recognition memory, the pattern separation account (Wilson et al., 2006) and Fuzzy Trace Theory (FTT; Brainerd & Reyna, 2002). Firstly, a functional magnetic resonance imaging study in young adults found evidence for differences in regions engaged at encoding of images according to the accuracy of later mnemonic discrimination, consistent with both pattern separation and FTT. Evidence of functional overlap between regions showing activity consistent with pattern separation, and activity associated with later accurate recognition was consistent with a role of cortical pattern separation in successful encoding, but there was no direct evidence that cortical pattern separation contributed to mnemonic discrimination. This first evidence of cortical pattern separation in humans was supported by findings that in the majority of pattern separation regions, response functions to stimuli varied in their similarity to previous items were consistent with predictions of computational models. Regional variation in the dimension(s) of similarity (conceptual/perceptual) driving pattern separation was indicative of variation in the type of mnemonic interference minimised by cortical pattern separation. Further evidence of encoding contributions to mnemonic discrimination was provided by an event-related potential study in young and older adults. Older adults showed less distinct waveforms than young adults at encoding of items whose similar lures were later correctly rejected compared to those falsely recognised, supporting the proposal that age-related encoding impairments contribute to the decline in mnemonic discrimination. Finally, a set of behavioural studies found that older adults’ mnemonic discrimination deficit is increased by conceptual similarity, supporting previous findings and consistent with FTT’s account of greater emphasis by older adults on gist processing. However, older adults required greater reduction in perceptual or conceptual similarity in order to successfully reject lures, as uniquely predicted by the pattern separation account. Together, the findings support the notion that encoding processes contribute directly to mnemonic discrimination and its age-related decline. An integrated view of the pattern separation account and FTT is discussed and developed in relation to the current findings.