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Plasticity in the human hippocampus

Woollett, K.; (2011) Plasticity in the human hippocampus. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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If we are to approach rehabilitation of memory-impaired patients in a systematic and efficacious way, then it is vital to know if the human memory system has the propensity for plasticity in adulthood, the limiting factors on such plasticity, and the timescales of any plastic change. This thesis was motivated by an attempt to develop a body of knowledge in relation to these questions. There is wide agreement that the hippocampus plays a key role in navigation and memory across species. Evidence from animal studies suggests that spatial memoryrelated hippocampal volume changes and experience-related hippocampal neurogenesis takes place throughout the lifespan. Previous studies in humans indicated that expert navigators, licensed London taxi drivers, have different patterns of hippocampal grey matter volume relative to control participants. In addition, preliminary evidence also suggested there may be functional consequences associated with this grey matter pattern. Using licensed London taxi drivers as a model for learning and memory, the work undertaken centered on four key issues: (1) In a set of studies, I characterised the neuropsychological profile of licensed London taxi drivers in detail, which included devising a number of new table-top associational memory tests. This enabled me to assess the functional consequences of their expertise and hippocampal grey matter pattern in greater depth than previous studies. (2) In order to explore the effects of taxi drivers’ expertise in more naturalistic settings, I also examined how well they could learn the layout of an unfamiliar town compared with a group of non-taxi drivers, and how effectively taxi drivers could integrate a new district into their existing spatial representation of London. (3) I then conducted a study on experts whose knowledge was much less spatial than taxi drivers in order to examine if the effects on hippocampal grey matter and neuropsychology were general or whether they were specific to the spatial domain. (4) Given that previous taxi driver studies were cross-sectional, the question of whether the human hippocampus can exhibit spatial memory-related structural plasticity in adulthood was uncertain. I therefore conducted a longitudinal study which assessed participants both pre and post taxi driver training using structural MRI and neuropsychological measures. This enabled me to investigate, within subjects, whether hippocampal volume changes can be acquired in response to intense spatial stimulation. In addition, I explored whether ceasing to be a taxi driver (i.e. retiring after many years on the job) resulted in ‘reverse’ plasticity. I found evidence for hippocampal plasticity within individuals as a result of their intense acquisition of spatial knowledge over a number of years that was associated with qualifying to be a licensed London taxi driver, and preliminary evidence of reverse plasticity when taxi drivers retire. This suggests that hippocampal structure and memory ability can be modified in response to environmental factors and are not necessarily hard-wired. However, my results also provide some insights into the boundaries within which human memory operates, as I identified both positive and negative cognitive consequences of being an expert navigator, and also established that the MRI and neuropsychology effects of expertise on the hippocampus may be restricted to the spatial domain.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: Plasticity in the human hippocampus
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1310481
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