The Parahippocampal Cortex Mediates Spatial and Nonspatial Associations
The parahippocampal cortex (PHC) has been implicated in the processing of place-related information. It has also been implicated in episodic memory, even for items that are not related to unique places. How could the same cortical region mediate such seemingly different cognitive processes? Both processes rely on contextual associations, and we therefore propose that the PHC should be viewed not as exclusively dedicated for analyzing place-related information, or as solely processing episodic memories, but instead as more generally playing a central role in contextual associative processing. To test this proposal, we created a novel learning paradigm to form new associations among meaningless visual patterns. These new associations were created to emulate either spatial or nonspatial contexts. Both spatial and nonspatial associations activated the PHC more than noncontextual items. Moreover, items from spatial contexts activated the posterior part of the PHC, whereas items from nonspatial contexts activated the anterior PHC. Therefore, we show that the PHC plays a role of processing contextual associations in general, and that these associations are not restricted to spatial information. By modifying the existing view of the PHC function accordingly, the seemingly contradicting processes that activate it can be reconciled under one overarching framework.