Ventromedial prefrontal cortex is necessary for normal associative inference and memory integration

Kelsey N. Spalding, Margaret L. Schlichting, Dagmar Zeithamova, Alison R. Preston, Daniel Tranel, Melissa C. Duff, David E. Warren

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


The ability to flexibly combine existing knowledge in response to novel circumstances is highly adaptive. However, the neural correlates of flexible associative inference are not well characterized. Laboratory tests of associative inference have measured memory for overlapping pairs of studied items (e.g., AB, BC) and for nonstudied pairs with common associates (i.e., AC). Findings from functional neuroimaging and neuropsychology suggest the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) may be necessary for associative inference. Here, we used a neuropsychological approach to test the necessity of vmPFC for successful memory-guided associative inference in humans using an overlapping pairs associative memory task. We predicted that individuals with focal vmPFC damage (n = 5; 3F, 2M) would show impaired inferential memory but intact non-inferential memory. Performance was compared with normal comparison participants (n = 10; 6F, 4M). Participants studied pairs of visually presented objects including overlapping pairs (AB, BC) and nonoverlapping pairs (XY). Participants later completed a three-alternative forced-choice recognition task for studied pairs (AB, BC, XY) and inference pairs (AC). As predicted, the vmPFC group had intact memory for studied pairs but significantly impaired memory for inferential pairs. These results areconsistentwiththeperspectivethatthevmPFCisnecessaryformemory-guidedassociativeinference,indicating that the vm PFC is critical for adaptive abilities that require application of existing knowledge to novel circumstances. Additionally, vm PFC damage was associated with unexpectedly reduced memory for AB pairs post-inference, which could potentially reflect retroactive interference. Together, these results reinforce an emerging understanding of a role for the vmPFC in brain networks supporting associative memory processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3767-3775
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number15
StatePublished - Apr 11 2018


  • Associative inference
  • Lesion
  • Memory integration
  • Memory systems
  • Ventromedial prefrontal cortex
  • VmPFC

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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