A novel experimental approach to episodic memory in humans based on the privileged access of odors to memories
J Neurosci Methods
213(1): 22-31
Saive, A. L.
Ravel, N.
Thevenet, M.
Royet, J. P.
Plailly, J.

Episodic memory is defined as the conscious recollection of a personal event (What) in its spatial (Where) and contextual (Which context) environment. In existing approaches, human episodic memory is either explored separately from real-life situations or is not fully controlled. In this study, we propose an intermediate approach, inspired by animal studies, that permits the control of the encoding and recall phases, while still being ecologically valid. As odors are known to be especially evocative reminders, we explored the memory of olfactory episodes. During trial-unique encoding, participants freely explored three episodes, one episode per day, each composed of three unnamable odors (What) that were positioned at specific locations on a board (Where) within a visual context (Which context). On the fourth day, both old and new odors were presented, and when an odor was recognized, the participants had to remember both its spatial location and the visual context in which it occurred. In Experiment 1, the participants were highly proficient at recognizing odors, and they recall the spatio-contextual environment associated with these odors in approximately half of the trials. To adapt the recall procedure to the constraints of fMRI, we conducted Experiment 2 demonstrating that trial repetition did not disturb the memory process. Thus, we first validated our protocol, which investigates the memory of olfactory episodes in a fully controlled way that is as close as possible to real-life situations. Then, we demonstrated the adaptability of our protocol for the future exploration of the neural networks implicated in episodic recall.