Hippocampus Role in the Limbic System

The hippocampus (red), a limbic system structure, is responsible for long-term memory. Credit: Sciepro/Getty Images

The hippocampus is a small, curved formation in the brain that plays an important role in the limbic system. The hippocampus is involved in the formation of new memories and is also associated with learning and emotions.

Because the brain is lateralized and symmetrical, you actually have two hippocampi. They are located just above each ear and about an inch-and-a-half inside your head.

How Does the Hippocampus Affect Memory?

The hippocampus plays a critical role in the formation, organization, and storage of new memories as well as connecting certain sensations and emotions to these memories. Have you ever noticed how a particular scent might trigger a strong memory? It is the hippocampus that plays a role in this connection.

Research has also found that different subregions of the hippocampus itself play important roles in certain types of memory. For example, the rear part of the hippocampus is involved in the processing of spatial memories. Studies of London cab drivers published in 2000 found that navigating complex mazes of big city streets is linked to the growth of the rear region of the hippocampus.

The hippocampus also plays a role in consolidating memories during sleep. Studies published in 2004 suggest that greater hippocampal activity during sleep following some sort of training or learning experience leads to better memory of the material the following day.

This doesn’t mean that memories are themselves stored in the hippocampus for the long term. Instead, it is believed that the hippocampus acts as something of a shipping center, taking in information, registering it, and temporarily storing it before shipping it off to be filed and stored in long-term memory. Sleep is believed to play a critical role in this process.

When the Hippocampus Is Damaged

Because the hippocampus plays such an important role in the formation of new memories, damage to this part of the brain can have a serious long-term impact on certain types of memory. Damage to the hippocampus has been observed upon post-mortem analysis of the brains of individuals with amnesia. Such damage is linked to problems with forming explicit memories such as names, dates, and events.

The exact impact of damage can vary depending on which hippocampus has been affected. Research on mice suggests that damage to the left hippocampus has an effect on the recall of verbal information while damage to the right hippocampus results in problems with visual information.

Age can also have a major impact on the functioning of the hippocampus. MRI scans of human brains have found that the human hippocampus shrinks by around 13 percent between the ages of 30 and 80. Those who experience such a loss may show significant declines in memory performance. Cell degeneration in the hippocampus has also been linked to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

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Additional Reading
  • Myers, D.G. (2011). Exploring Psychology, eighth edition. New York: Worth Publishers.

  • Schacter, D.L. (1996). Searching for memory. New York: Basic Books.