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Neural correlates of the spacing effect in explicit verbal semantic encoding support the deficient-processing theory

Daniel E Callan, Nicolas Schweighofer
Human Brain Mapping 2010, 31 (4): 645-59
Spaced presentations of to-be-learned items during encoding leads to superior long-term retention over massed presentations. Despite over a century of research, the psychological and neural basis of this spacing effect however is still under investigation. To test the hypotheses that the spacing effect results either from reduction in encoding-related verbal maintenance rehearsal in massed relative to spaced presentations (deficient processing hypothesis) or from greater encoding-related elaborative rehearsal of relational information in spaced relative to massed presentations (encoding variability hypothesis), we designed a vocabulary learning experiment in which subjects encoded paired-associates, each composed of a known word paired with a novel word, in both spaced and massed conditions during functional magnetic resonance imaging. As expected, recall performance in delayed cued-recall tests was significantly better for spaced over massed conditions. Analysis of brain activity during encoding revealed that the left frontal operculum, known to be involved in encoding via verbal maintenance rehearsal, was associated with greater performance-related increased activity in the spaced relative to massed condition. Consistent with the deficient processing hypothesis, a significant decrease in activity with subsequent episodes of presentation was found in the frontal operculum for the massed but not the spaced condition. Our results suggest that the spacing effect is mediated by activity in the frontal operculum, presumably by encoding-related increased verbal maintenance rehearsal, which facilitates binding of phonological and word level verbal information for transfer into long-term memory.


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