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Amygdala damage impairs emotional memory for gist but not details of complex stimuli


Neurobiological studies demonstrate the amygdala's role in emotional memory, and psychological studies suggest a particular pattern: enhanced memory for the gist but not the details of complex stimuli. We hypothesized that these two findings are related. Whereas normal (n = 52) and brain-damaged (n = 22) controls showed the expected enhancement of gist memory when the encoding context was emotional, persons with unilateral damage to the medial temporal lobe including the amygdala (n = 16) did not show this pattern. Furthermore, amygdala volume showed a significant positive correlation with gist memory but not with overall memory. A further study in four subjects with selective medial temporal damage sparing the amygdala, and one with selective damage confined to the amygdala, confirmed the specificity of this effect to the amygdala. The data support a model whereby the amygdala focuses processing resources on gist, possibly accounting for features of traumatic memories and eyewitness testimony in real life.

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Figure 1: Task design.
Figure 2: Differential modulation of memory for gist by emotion.
Figure 3: Differential modulation of memory for gist by emotion: replication with Experiment 2.
Figure 4: Within-subject gist memory.
Figure 5: Correlation between memory performance and neuroanatomy.
Figure 6: Neuroanatomy of subjects with selective hippocampal or amygdala damage.
Figure 7: Gist memory in subjects with bilateral hippocampal or bilateral amygdala damage.


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We thank J. Nath, S. Lemker and M. Karafin for assistance in testing subjects, and D. Krutzfeldt and R. Henson for help in scheduling their visits. This study was supported by grant R01 MH67681 from the National Institute of Mental Health and by grant P01 19632 from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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Correspondence to Ralph Adolphs.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figure 1

Raw memory scores for gist and for detail. (PDF 45 kb)

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Adolphs, R., Tranel, D. & Buchanan, T. Amygdala damage impairs emotional memory for gist but not details of complex stimuli. Nat Neurosci 8, 512–518 (2005).

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