Ontogenesis of memory consolidation: From remembering regularities to specifics

Memories of experienced events in the first years of life tend to be fragile and short-lived as illustrated by the phenomenon of childhood amnesia, the inability to retrieve experienced events in detail during early childhood. However, over time, the ability and the underlying neural substrates to form, retain, and retrieve memories develop. At the same time, humans are equipped early on, even as infants, with basic learning mechanisms such as statistical learning to internalize regularities in the environment. Such basic learning mechanisms allow the immature brain to streamline and integrate the large amount of information infants receive from the environment with existing representations, by focusing on experiences that are regular and recurring. This early form of learning is also postulated to scaffold the development of schema knowledge and memory consolidation. However, direct longitudinal evidence for such postulations is lacking. In this subproject, we propose to measure statistical learning and its neural correlates in neonates longitudinally over time and relate statistical learning to episodic memory functioning at 1 year of age. Because of the crucial role that sleep plays for infant brain development, we will study the role of sleep on these developmental processes, focusing on regions and networks that are important for memory. Taken together, in this funding period, we plan to study how learning and memory processes develop in infants during the first year of life, which is the developmental period of most rapid brain maturation. This builds upon and extends beyond our project from the first funding period that focused on developmental maturational changes during middle childhood that underlie successful memory consolidation. We expect to gain insights into the dynamics of system-level memory consolidation by examining structural and functional neural integrity across time, focusing on the development of hippocampal–cortical networks underlying memory for regularities and specifics.

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