Hippocampus Plays Key Role In Future Planning, Study Finds

The hippocampus is a region of the human brain located in the medial region of the temporal lobe and shaped like a horseshoe. The hippocampus is thought to be associated primarily with storing long-term memories, as per Encyclopedia Britannica.

New groundbreaking research from New York University has found evidence that the hippocampus is necessary for future planning.

Published in Neuron, and authored by Oliver M. Vikbladh, John King, Neil Burgess, Michael R. Meager, Nathaniel D. Daw, Daphna Shohamy, Karen Blackmon, and Orrin Devinsky, “Hippocampal Contributions to Model-Based Planning and Spatial Memory” is the first study ever to provide evidence for the claim that hippocampus plays a part in future planning. The study, in fact, suggests that the hippocampus’ role in future planning is absolutely vital.

For the study, the researchers tested planning and spatial memory in healthy individuals, and in patients suffering from epilepsy, a chronic seizure disorder known to damage the hippocampus.

Both groups undertook computer-based tests to have their spatial memory and planning ability tested. First, all study participants were asked to recall the locations of certain objects in a virtual reality arena. They were then asked to perform an additional task that involved planning.

“These tasks aim to capture functions that let us find our car in a parking lot, or planning moves ahead in a game of chess by imagining how the game will play out,” lead researcher Oliver M. Vikbladh explained.

The study relies heavily on Nobel Prize winner John O’Keefe’s hippocampal “cognitive map,” which is the brain’s spatial localization system. This map, as O’Keefe discovered, allows human beings to “mentally stimulate” future outcomes of their actions.

Concept image of human brain.

The results showed that epilepsy patients, individuals with damaged hippocampuses, displayed inferior spatial memory compared to healthy patients, and also planned less.

The group suffering from epilepsy was more likely to form habits and repeat actions regardless of the fact whether they had in the past been rewarded for performing them or not. Therefore, they were not considering the outcomes of their actions. Furthermore, the researchers found that the amount of damage to the hippocampus was related to planning impairment.

Given that this study has proven that the hippocampus plays a key role in future planning and spatial awareness, it has significant implications for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and epilepsy, according to New York University researchers.

“When we talk diseases that affect the hippocampus, such as Alzheimer’s, we often focus on the memory deficits — such as forgetting where you are. But there might be additional challenges, specifically, an inability to plan properly. Given that approximately 50 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s or related dementias, it is critical that we understand how damage to the hippocampus affects the way we make decisions,” lead researcher Oliver M. Vikbladh concluded.