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Researcher Explores the Interaction of Emotions and Memories in the Human Brain Network 

April 14, 2022 

Key Findings 

  • The hippocampus is crucial in reactivating the brain patterns associated with episodic memories.
  • The “PMAT” framework, a highly influential model of human memory, involves two memory systems – the posterior medial (PM) and anterior temporal (AT) systems – that interact to drive and organize episodic memories.

 

Think of a fond memory. How do you feel? Relaxed, excited, or maybe happy? The ability to relive the emotions associated with life experiences is one of the original processes that interested Dr. Maureen Ritchey, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College, in studying episodic memory. 

Dr. Ritchey is a recipient of the 2022 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award, nominated by the Cognitive Neuroscience Society.

“Episodic memories are fascinating because of how complicated they are. They include so many different kinds of details, and when we put those details back together, it can make us feel like we’re reliving moments from the past,” she explains.  

Work in Dr. Ritchey’s lab focuses on understanding how brain regions work together to encode and retrieve episodic memories. “Episodic memories are intrinsically complex, so we need different parts of the brain to work together to build out those memories,” she says. Some of her original work demonstrated the crucial role of the hippocampus in reactivating the brain patterns associated with episodic memories. Now, she primarily uses behavioral and fMRI techniques to further understand the cognitive and brain processes involved in binding and reconstructing the specific details of episodic memories.  

Episodic memories are intrinsically complex, so we need different parts of the brain to work together to build out those memories.

– Maureen Ritchey

Using these techniques, she was instrumental in developing the “PMAT” framework which is a highly influential model of human memory. PMAT involves two memory systems: the posterior medial (PM) and anterior temporal (AT) systems that interact to form coherent memories.  

Now, think of a childhood birthday party you attended. What do you remember? A cake, gifts, your friends’ smiling faces? The AT system represents individual items and concepts involved in a memory. Here, the AT system is driving your memory of items such as the cake and presents. The PM system organizes these details into a coherent memory by filling in information such as the spatial layout of the room where the party occurred. As Dr. Ritchey explains, “the more these systems interact, the more successful they are in filling in the details of the memory.” 

 

Her work can be applied to a host of neurological and psychiatric disorders involving memory impairments. Understanding how brain networks interact with each other to form memories in healthy patients would allow clinicians to better intervene in cases of memory impairment. Her network approach is crucial here, as dysfunction tends to affect the entire network rather than a single brain region. 

The clinical implications of her work extend beyond patients with memory impairments. She is also interested in understanding the processes involved in changing the valence of negative emotional memories. Reappraising the emotions associated with negative memories, such as a traumatic experience, can aid in recovery from the event. She explains, “we don’t remember everything about an emotional experience — so how does this filtering of the experience work? How do we save certain details over others, and can we change which ones we’re likely to remember in the future?” With a clearer understanding of the processes involved in the reappraisal of negative emotional memories, we can investigate better treatment strategies for patients suffering from psychiatric diseases such as PTSD. 

Importantly, Dr. Ritchey’s research can continue because of federal funding in our sciences. She has received support from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). This support allows her to work with imaging techniques and to train students and postdoctoral researchers to handle complex data and analyses. 

Potential for Future Impact

  • Better interventions in cases of memory impairment.
  • Improved treatment strategies for patients suffering from a variety of psychiatric diseases.

Dr. Maureen Ritchey is a recipient of the 2022 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS).

CNS 2022, the 29th Annual Society Conference, took place in San Francisco, CA, on April 23-26, 2022. See more about the conference here

You can read more about Dr. Ritchey’s work at the links below: 

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