Dr. Mariam Aly, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Columbia University
How hippocampal memory shapes, and is shaped by, attention
Attention modulates what we see and remember. Memory affects what we attend to and perceive. Despite this connection in behavior, little is known about the mechanisms that link attention and memory in the brain. One key structure that may be at the interface between attention and memory is the hippocampus. Here, I’ll explore the hypothesis that the relational representations of the hippocampus allow it to critically contribute to bidirectional interactions between attention and memory. First, I’ll show — in a series of human fMRI studies — that attention creates state-dependent patterns of activity in the hippocampus, and that these representations predict both online attentional behavior and memory formation. Then, I’ll provide neuropsychological evidence that hippocampal damage impairs performance on attention tasks that tax relational representations, particularly spatial relational representations. I will then provide pharmacological evidence that hippocampal contributions to attention and perception may be mediated by cholinergic modulation — a switch that can toggle the hippocampus between internally and externally oriented states. Finally, I’ll demonstrate that hippocampal memories enable preparation for upcoming attentional states and may help resolve competition between similar memories to guide attention. Together, this line of work highlights the tight links between attention and memory — links that are established, at least in part, by the hippocampus.
Dr. Mariam Aly is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. She studies the human mind and brain with a focus on the interplay between attention, perception, and memory.
How are percepts transformed to memories, and how do we use memory to guide perception and action? I study the mechanisms by which attention and perception allow us to remember the world around us, and how — once we have formed those memories — we can use them to guide our attention, perception, and goal-directed behavior in the future.
To address these questions, I rely on multiple methods that together give us a holistic understanding of behavior and the brain. These methods include behavioral studies of healthy young individuals, behavioral studies of healthy older adults, studies of patients with brain lesions (e.g., as a result of epilepsy, stroke, hypoxia, tumors), and high-resolution functional neuroimaging (fMRI) with advanced multi-voxel pattern analysis and functional connectivity techniques.These methods have allowed me to answer questions such as: what is the role of “memory systems”, like the hippocampus, in perception? How does attention modulate the hippocampus, and how does that affect what we remember later on? How does the brain learn and remember temporal structure in the world, and how does it use that structure to generate predictions about the future? Together, my research helps elucidate the multifaceted and inherently interactive nature of cognition, bringing us closer to understanding the whole of the mind and brain as well as its parts.