Journal Article

Vestibular loss causes hippocampal atrophy and impaired spatial memory in humans

Thomas Brandt, Franz Schautzer, Derek A. Hamilton, Roland Brüning, Hans J. Markowitsch, Roger Kalla, Cynthia Darlington, Paul Smith and Michael Strupp

in Brain

Published on behalf of The Guarantors of Brain

Volume 128, issue 11, pages 2732-2741
Published in print November 2005 | ISSN: 0006-8950
Published online September 2005 | e-ISSN: 1460-2156 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awh617
Vestibular loss causes hippocampal atrophy and impaired spatial memory in humans

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The human hippocampal formation plays a crucial role in various aspects of memory processing. Most literature on the human hippocampus stresses its non-spatial memory functions, but older work in rodents and some other species emphasized the role of the hippocampus in spatial learning and memory as well. A few human studies also point to a direct relation between hippocampal size, navigation and spatial memory. Conversely, the importance of the vestibular system for navigation and spatial memory was until now convincingly demonstrated only in animals. Using magnetic resonance imaging volumetry, we found that patients (n = 10) with acquired chronic bilateral vestibular loss (BVL) develop a significant selective atrophy of the hippocampus (16.9% decrease relative to controls). When tested with a virtual variant (on a PC) of the Morris water task these patients exhibited significant spatial memory and navigation deficits that closely matched the pattern of hippocampal atrophy. These spatial memory deficits were not associated with general memory deficits. The current data on BVL patients and bilateral hippocampal atrophy revive the idea that a major—and probably phylogenetically ancient—function of the archicortical hippocampal tissue is still evident in spatial aspects of memory processing for navigation. Furthermore, these data demonstrate for the first time in humans that spatial navigation critically depends on preserved vestibular function, even when the subjects are stationary, e.g. without any actual vestibular or somatosensory stimulation.

Keywords: hippocampus; bilateral vestibular failure; spatial memory; navigation; BVL = bilateral vestibular loss; VMWT = virtual Morris water task; GM = grey matter; WM = white matter

Journal Article.  7573 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Neurology ; Neuroscience

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