Schizophrenia Research Forum - A Catalyst for Creative Thinking

Relational Memory Deficits Traced to Parietal Cortex/Hippocampus

18 April 2006. Using magnetic resonance imaging, scientists have peered into the brain to determine what areas are active during tasks that challenge relational memory, which underlies our ability to make associations between different facts or objects. The imaging studies indicate that, under certain conditions, processing in the parietal cortex and a small region of the hippocampus is poorer in schizophrenia patients. Because relational memory is thought to be important for reasoning, deficient activation in these specialized regions may explain why some patients suffer from delusional thinking and compromised cognition.

Deficits in relational memory were very recently documented in schizophrenia patients. Debra Titone of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and colleagues found that patients have difficulty in a particular aspect of relational memory called transitive inference, which requires subjects to make judgments by extrapolating previously learned information (see Titone et al., 2004). The classic example of transitive inference is the ability to predict that given A is greater than B and B is greater than C, then A is also greater than C. Now, Dost Ongur and colleagues at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, expand that work by examining what areas of the brain are activated during tests of transitive inference. Their findings are reported in the April Archives of General Psychiatry.

Ongur and colleagues tested 20 patients with schizophrenia and 17 normal controls. All subjects were trained with pairs of patterned cards and told that one of the cards was always the “winner,” in other words card A is greater than card B, card B is greater than card C, etc. The patients were shown four overlapping pairs: AB, BC, CD, and DE. Once the volunteers had remembered which card in each pair trumped the other, they were then shown all the pairs again while magnetic resonance images (MRI) were taken. In addition to this basic test, the subjects were also shown new pairings, such as AD, and asked to infer, based on their prior training, which card of the new pair was the likeliest winner.

The researchers found that both control subjects and schizophrenia patients did equally well in the basic test. Schizophrenia patients also did equally well when they had to make an inference, but only provided one member of the new pair was previously seen in the context of always winning or always losing, for example, AD or BE. However, when presented with an ambiguous pair, schizophrenia patients were significantly poorer at deducing which card should win. In the A>B, B>C, C>D and D>E paradigm, an ambiguous pair would be BD, because both B and D have been seen in the context of winning and losing. “If you have seen A only in the context where it always wins then you do not need to know anything ‘flexibly,’ you do not need to figure out how the cards fit into a sequence. Then it’s a lot easier to do this test because all you have to remember is A always wins,” suggested Ongur. It is the flexibility that seems to be problematic for patients with schizophrenia.

The MRI images showed that when presented with the ambiguous BD pair, control subjects showed significantly greater activation of the right parietal cortex and the left anterior hippocampus than did the schizophrenia patients. Functional MRI analysis, which measured blood flow, confirmed these regional differences. Control subjects had significantly greater blood flow in these areas when they were challenged with the BD “hard inference” task.

While the hippocampus is well-known for being involved in processing and consolidating memory, the parietal cortex is not. However, that the parietal cortex may be required for relational memory and might be deficient in schizophrenia was unexpected though not surprising, commented Ongur. Though this is not a high-profile area in schizophrenia research, it has been discussed in the context of cognitive deficits and has previously been associated with transitive inference in normal controls. It is also required for spatial and numerical processing.

How deficits in relational memory and associated brain areas relate to psychoses is not presently clear, but this kind of memory underlies a lot of reasoning. “Knowing facts about the world and then putting two separate facts together to arrive at a conclusion depends to a large extent on relational memory. And while patients with schizophrenia often have the facts about the world, they can actually arrive at delusional interpretations,” said Ongur.

Relational memory may also be a key component of episodic memory, which is also compromised in schizophrenia patients. Episodic memory, or the ability to recount events or happenings, is most likely structured in relational ways, suggested Ongur. In other words, remembering an event requires putting together an ordered series of happenings; that order depends on relating different segments in the correct sequence.—Tom Fagan.

Ongur D, Cullen TJ, Wolf DH, Rohan M, Barreira P, Zalesak M, Heckers S. The neural basis of relational memory deficits in Schizophrenia. Archives of General Psychiatry, 2006;63:356-365. Abstract

Comments on News and Primary Papers
Comment by:  Deborah Levy
Submitted 19 May 2006
Posted 19 May 2006

Comment by Deborah Levy, Debra Titone, and Howard Eichenbaum.
It is easy to appreciate why relational memory organization is such a compelling topic in studies of psychotic conditions. Relational memory allows one to flexibly manipulate information to discern new relationships based on known facts. The memory representations that support implicit reasoning of this type emerge effortlessly when the medial temporal lobe functions normally, whether navigating from a detour in a usual route or extrapolating that which is common across a set of individual memory traces. Relational thinking gone awry is a fundamental component of psychotic thinking. Inferential reasoning, referential ideas, and delusional extrapolations all involve making connections between unrelated things. These unwarranted connections, in turn, lead to erroneous (and potentially unrealistic) conclusions.

The kind of relational memory studied by Ongur et al. (2006) involves transitive inference (TI), or the capacity to use knowledge of how individual memory traces overlap, to correctly infer a new relationship that is predicated on already stored information. For example, it is straightforward to make the TI that Sally is taller than Peter if one knows the two related premises, Sally is taller than Frank and Frank is taller than Peter.

The study by Ongur et al. follows up on two studies initiated by Titone’s translation of Eichenbaum’s paradigm for testing TI in rodents. The first study established that schizophrenic patients show TI deficits compared with controls (Titone et al., 2004). Using a modification of the same TI paradigm adapted for use in the imaging environment, the second study assessed which brain regions were selectively activated when nonpsychiatric controls made TI relational judgments (relative to non-TI relational judgments). Of particular interest was whether the hippocampus (HP) would be one of the regions to show selective activation, since Eichenbaum’s work in rodents had demonstrated that animals with HP lesions or whose HPs have been disconnected from their subcortical and cortical connections lose the capacity for TI (Dusek and Eichenbaum, 1997; 1998). The imaging study showed a selective association between TI and activation of right HP, pre-supplementary motor area, left prefrontal cortex, left parietal cortex, and thalamus (Heckers et al., 2004; see also Preston et al., 2004). Having established the neural circuitry subserving TI in the healthy brain, the stage was set to compare the patterns of regional brain activation in schizophrenic and control subjects, the focus of the study by Ongur et al.

In addition to shedding some light on a potential relational memory impairment in schizophrenia, the Ongur et al. paper is useful for illustrating some of the complexities that arise in designing and interpreting the results of imaging studies generally and of transitive inference studies in particular. Below we discuss several of them and the many intriguing questions that call for resolution in future work.

One main source of complexity is that the key condition that demonstrates the capacity for TI is also the most difficult, especially for schizophrenic patients. Ongur et al. report that in controls, accuracy does not differ between the BD and non-BD sequential inference trials. However, the mean accuracy score of the controls is in the direction of the BD condition being less accurate. In addition, had response latencies been reported for those two conditions as well, it is very likely that correct response latencies for BD would have been longer than those for non-BD sequential inference trials in both groups. Thus, with these particular stimuli it is not straightforward to distinguish discrete effects of TI from the increased difficulty of TI judgments relative to non-TI judgments on performance or on regional brain activation. In other words, did schizophrenics perform more poorly on BD than controls because BD is more difficult than non-BD or because their capacity for TI is compromised? Was the increased activation bilaterally of inferior parietal cortex during BD (relative to non-BD) in controls a function of TI or of task difficulty? Was the increased activation of right inferior parietal cortex in schizophrenics during BD (relative to non-BD) a function of TI or of task difficulty? (See Stark and Squire, 2003.)

Schizophrenic patients performed the critical TI task (BD vs. non-BD) significantly worse than controls, which is to be expected given the previously mentioned increased task difficulty of the BD condition. Indeed, as a group they performed no better than chance. The groups also differed in pattern of regional brain activation. In the whole brain analysis, controls activated inferior parietal bilaterally, whereas schizophrenics activated right inferior parietal, inferior frontal, and premotor cortices. Neither group significantly activated HP. The only region to show a significant activation difference between the groups was right inferior parietal cortex. Because performance and activation are confounded, the pattern of results does not lend itself to a simple interpretation. That is, did these differences in regional activation occur because schizophrenics could not perform a task that depends on these regions, or did the poor performance occur because schizophrenics could not activate critical regions? The same confound affects the ability to interpret the results of the ROI analysis of HP. Was HP activation decreased during BD in schizophrenics because they were not performing a task that depends on HP, or was performance poor because patients were not able to activate HP?

Several aspects of these results make it difficult to characterize the role of the HP in the neural circuitry subserving TI in humans. First, in the whole brain analysis, controls activated HP only in the analysis of a general comparison of “TI versus non-TI” conditions. The specific critical TI comparison condition (BD vs. non-BD) did not activate HP in controls in the whole brain analysis, a finding that would have been expected based on Eichenbaum and colleagues’ rodent work (Dusek and Eichenbaum, 1997; 1998). Second, was the decreased activation of HP during BD in the patients related to excessively high basal levels of activation? Third, the one region that did show a difference between BD and non-BD in controls and that distinguished schizophrenics from controls was right inferior parietal cortex, not HP. Based on the results of the whole brain analysis, it would be interesting to see the results of an ROI analysis of inferior parietal, inferior frontal, premotor cortex, and anterior cingulate. Fourth, to what extent do sensitivity and power contribute to the difference between the results of the whole brain and ROI analyses and between the more general TI versus non-TI contrast and the specific BD versus non-BD contrast? Fifth, was the increased activation of inferior frontal regions during BD in schizophrenics an effort to compensate for under-recruitment of inferior parietal cortex bilaterally or HP (see Bonner-Jackson et al., 2005)?

Although the results of the Ongur et al. (2006) study are promising, to characterize the neural basis of relational memory deficits in schizophrenia, at least two additional challenges must be met. The first is to differentiate TI from task difficulty. Our recent modification of the TI paradigm that was used in the Titone et al. (2004), Heckers et al (2004), and Ongur et al. (2006) studies disambiguates TI deficits from difficulty effects. The preliminary results are quite promising in showing that schizophrenics show behavioral deficits in TI independent of difficulty. The second is to unconfound behavioral performance and neural activation. One way to do this is to match the comparison groups on behavioral performance. Another is to separately analyze imaging data from individuals with schizophrenia who can do TI at greater than chance levels and those who cannot.


Bonner-Jackson A, Haut K, Csernansky JG, Barch DM. The influence of encoding strategy on episodic memory and cortical activity in schizophrenia. Biol Psychiatry. 2005 Jul 1;58(1):47-55. Abstract

Dusek JA, Eichenbaum H. The hippocampus and memory for orderly stimulus relations. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1997 Jun 24;94(13):7109-14. Abstract

Dusek JA, Eichenbaum H. The hippocampus and transverse patterning guided by olfactory cues. Behav Neurosci. 1998 Aug;112(4):762-71. Abstract

Heckers S, Zalesak M, Weiss AP, Ditman T, Titone D. Hippocampal activation during transitive inference in humans. Hippocampus. 2004;14(2):153-62. Abstract

Ongur D, Cullen TJ, Wolf DH, Rohan M, Barreira P, Zalesak M, Heckers S. The neural basis of relational memory deficits in schizophrenia. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006 Apr;63(4):356-65. Abstract

Preston AR, Shrager Y, Dudukovic NM, Gabrieli JD. Hippocampal contribution to the novel use of relational information in declarative memory. Hippocampus. 2004;14(2):148-52. No abstract available. Abstract

Stark CE, Squire LR. Hippocampal damage equally impairs memory for single items and memory for conjunctions. Hippocampus. 2003;13(2):281-92. Abstract

Titone D, Ditman T, Holzman PS, Eichenbaum H, Levy DL. Transitive inference in schizophrenia: impairments in relational memory organization. Schizophr Res. 2004 Jun 1;68(2-3):235-47. Abstract

View all comments by Deborah LevyComment by:  Patricia Estani
Submitted 3 June 2006
Posted 3 June 2006
  I recommend the Primary PapersComment by:  Terry Goldberg
Submitted 19 June 2006
Posted 19 June 2006

Ongur, Heckers, and colleagues present an interesting set of findings about memory in schizophrenia. Using a transitive inference paradigm to explore relational memory (inferring that A>C if one knows A>B and B>C), they showed both a selective behavioral deficit for one particular type of transitive inference (“BD”) that can only be done through logic and not through reinforcement alone and abnormalities in BOLD activation in parietal cortex, hippocampus, and anterior cingulate in schizophrenia. The study is exciting because it pinpoints a relatively specific mnemonic processing abnormality, a task not as easy as it may appear. Our own behavioral work (Goldberg, Elvevaag, and colleagues) has emphasized quantitative but not qualitative behavioral memory processing impairments in paradigms that included levels of encoding, false memory, and AB-ABr interference. A computational model of this work seemed to demonstrate marked reductions in connectivity (but not “neuronal number” or “noise”) in inputs into “entorhinal cortex” and from entorhinal to hippocampus fit the data well. Given the Heckers findings, it will be interesting to see how the model handles transitive inference.

As in every study, no matter the degree of excellence, there are issues. The study pivots on the presentation of eight BD pairings. Is this really enough? There have been consistent murmurings in the field that the transitive logical computations themselves may occur in prefrontal cortex. While the pre-SMA activation may technically fit the bill, one wonders if a region oft thought to be responsible for simple chaining of motor sequences is really up to the task of determining transitive relations. Perhaps most interesting is the finding of parietal cortical hypoactivation in schizophrenia during transitive inference, but is it specific to engagement in a transitivity judgment, or is it more generally a visual discrimination processing abnormality?

View all comments by Terry Goldberg

Comments on Related News

Related News: Training Study Questions Fixed Nature of Fluid Intelligence

Comment by:  Andrei Szoke
Submitted 7 May 2008
Posted 7 May 2008

The authors suggest that they have found what could be considered the Holy Grail of cognitive research—a means to enhance intelligence. There is some hope from the article, as results on a task considered to measure fluid intelligence are improved, even if the subjects are not trained on this specific task. The “dual n-back” training task, although not pure working memory (as the authors acknowledge), is a very interesting experimental paradigm. Unfortunately, the authors fail to convince us of its usefulness in enhancing “fluid intelligence.” When a drug is tested, any effect, to be convincingly supported, must be demonstrated in a double-blind, randomized, placebo (or standard treatment)-controlled trial. The same should be true for any (pharmacological or otherwise) means aimed at enhancing cognition.

As for the issue of whether this training will have the same effects in schizophrenic subjects as it had in these normal, motivated controls, that is an entirely different question that is not addressed in the article. I think that future studies have to address all those limitations (randomization of subjects, a similar amount of training with a different task in controls, a double-blind design) before any firm conclusions could be drawn.

View all comments by Andrei Szoke