Emotional memory systems in the brain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The neural mechanisms of emotion and memory have long been thought to reside side by side, if not in overlapping structures, of the limbic system. However, the limbic system concept is no longer acceptable as an account of the neural basis of memory or emotion and is being replaced with specific circuit accounts of specific emotional and memory processes. Emotional memory, a special category of memory involving the implicit (probably unconscious) learning and storage of information about the emotional significance of events, is modeled in rodent experiments using aversive classical conditioning techniques. The neural system underlying emotional memory critically involves the amygdala and structures with which it is connected. Afferent inputs from sensory processing areas of the thalamus and cortex mediate emotional learning in situations involving specific sensory cues, whereas learning about the emotional significance of more general, contextual cues involves projections to the amygdala from the hippocampal formation. Within the amygdala, the lateral nucleus (AL) is the sensory interface and the central nucleus the linkage with motor systems involved in the control of species-typical emotional behaviors and autonomic responses. Studies of cellular mechanisms in these pathways have focused on the direct relay to the lateral amygdala from the auditory thalamus. These studies show that single cells in AL respond to both conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus inputs, leading to the notion that AL might be a critical site of sensory-sensory integration in emotional learning. The thalamo-amygdala pathway also exhibits long-term potentiation, a form of synaptic plasticity that might underlie the emotional learning functions of the circuit. The thalamo-amygdala pathway contains and uses the amino acid glutamate in synaptic transmission, suggesting the possibility that an amino-acid mediated form of synaptic plasticity is involved in the emotional learning functions of the pathway. We are thus well on the way to a systems level and a cellular understanding of at least one form of emotional learning and memory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)69-79
Number of pages11
JournalBehavioural Brain Research
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Dec 20 1993


  • Emotional learning function
  • Emotional memory system
  • Long-term potentiation
  • Thalamo-hippocampal pathway

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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