The effectiveness of contextual memory cues declines as we age. How reliant are you on the sun on your skin to remember your last holiday?


The effectiveness of contextual memory cues declines as we age. How reliant are you on the sun on your skin to remember your last holiday?

Contextual cues for memory retrieval have long been thought to be an essential feature of our memory processes. Many memory models has sought to account for this by utilising contextual and associative memory cues. For instance, if you wished to remember that holiday to the south of France that you had last year the smell of the sea or the feel of sunshine on your skin could help recall how amazing the sight of the beach was when you first arrived.

However, recent experimental evidence has found that the effectiveness of these contextual memory cues can decline as we get older, a somewhat counterintuitive notion. We have known now for a long time that in healthy adults a deficit in episodic memory is observed as we get older (‘memory of experiences’). Although this is a well established idea among researchers the exact neurological processes that underpin this have remained largely unknown.

These apparent deficits in episodic memory has been linked to the parallel deficit in hippocampal synaptic plasticity and changes in hippocampal network activity as we age. As we age another well established factor in memory research is that our brains capacity for synaptic plasticity decreases, that is that our ability to ‘re-wire’ our brain declines. The gradual decline in synaptic plasticity may to some extent constitute a second stage of ‘synaptic pruning’ much like that which we see in children of a young age, albeit in a different manner.

The current contextual cuing study investigated memory in people over 65 years of age and compared these results to a younger population. In young adults contextual cues (‘the smell of the sea’) aided participants in recalling the events of a previous day. However, in contrast the group of over 65s found no benefit of contextual cues whatsoever. The feel of the sun on their skin could not help the over 65s remember the events of their holidays.

The results of this study are twofold. Firstly, since these adults over 65 years of age had otherwise healthy memories the results suggest that contextual cues are not a sufficient trigger for memories in some people. Secondly, the younger group may simply rely on contextual cues far more for memory than the older group.

The results from this research suggests that our capacity to utilise contextual cues may change as we age. The decline in hippocampal synaptic plasticity may have some influence on memory processes. This is the first study of memory to show that the utility of contextual cues can change as we age.



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Daniel Edgcumbe

I am studying towards my PhD in cognitive neuroscience at a leading London university

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