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Is bigger always better? A critical appraisal of the use of volumetric analysis in the study of the hippocampus

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Tom Smulders

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Abstract

A well-developed spatial memory is important for many animals, but appears especially important for scatter-hoarding species. Consequently, the scatter-hoarding system provides an excellent paradigm in which to study the integrative aspects of memory use within an ecological and evolutionary framework. One of the main tenets of this paradigm is that selection for enhanced spatial memory for cache locations should specialize the brain areas involved in memory. One such brain area is the hippocampus (Hp). Many studies have examined this adaptive specialization hypothesis, typically relating spatial memory to Hp volume. However, it is unclear how the volume of the Hp is related to its function for spatial memory. Thus, the goal of this article is to evaluate volume as a main measurement of the degree of morphological and physiological adaptation of the Hp as it relates to memory. We will briefly review the evidence for the specialization of memory in food-hoarding animals and discuss the philosophy behind volume as the main currency. We will then examine the problems associated with this approach, attempting to understand the advantages and limitations of using volume and discuss alternatives that might yield more specific hypotheses. Overall, there is strong evidence that the Hp is involved in the specialization of spatial memory in scatter-hoarding animals. However, volume may be only a coarse proxy for more relevant and subtle changes in the structure of the brain underlying changes in behaviour. To better understand the nature of this brain/memory relationship, we suggest focusing on more specific and relevant features of the Hp, such as the number or size of neurons, variation in connectivity depending on dendritic and axonal arborization and the number of synapses. These should generate more specific hypotheses derived from a solid theoretical background and should provide a better understanding of both neural mechanisms of memory and their evolution.


Publication metadata

Author(s): Roth TC, Brodin A, Smulders TV, LaDage LD, Pravosudov VV

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Year: 2010

Volume: 365

Issue: 1542

Pages: 915-931

Print publication date: 27/03/2010

Date deposited: 08/09/2010

ISSN (print): 0962-8452

ISSN (electronic): 1471-2954

Publisher: The Royal Society Publishing

URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2009.0208

DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0208


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