Attention-related activity during episodic memory retrieval: A cross-function fMRI study

Roberto Cabeza, Florin Dolcos, Steven E. Prince, Heather J. Rice, Daniel H. Weissman, Lars Nyberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In functional neuroimaging studies of episodic retrieval (ER), activations in prefrontal, parietal, anterior cingulate, and thalamic regions are typically attributed to episodic retrieval processes. However, these activations are also frequent during visual attention (VA) tasks, suggesting that their role in ER may reflect attentional rather than mnemonic processes. To investigate this possibility, we directly compared brain activity during ER and VA tasks using event-related fMRI. The ER task was a word recognition test with a retrieval mode component, and the VA task was a target detection task with a sustained attention component. The study yielded three main findings. First, a common fronto-parietal-cingulate-thalamic network was found for ER and VA, suggesting that the involvement of these regions during ER reflects general attentional processes. This idea is compatible with some of the interpretations proposed in the ER literature (e.g. postretrieval monitoring), which may be rephrased in terms of attentional processes. Second, several subregions were differentially involved in ER versus VA. For example, the frontopolar cortex and the precuneus were more activated for ER than for VA, possibly reflecting retrieval mode and processing of internally generated stimuli, respectively. Finally, the study yielded an unexpected finding: some medial temporal lobe regions were similarly activated for ER and VA. This finding suggests that the medial temporal lobes may be involved in indexing representations within the focus of consciousness, regardless of whether they are mnemonic or perceptual. Overall, the present results suggest that many of the activations attributed to specific cognitive processes, such as episodic memory, may actually reflect more general cognitive operations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)390-399
Number of pages10
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Episodic retrieval
  • Functional MRI (fMRI)
  • Hippocampus
  • Parietal cortex
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Visual attention

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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