Temporal context information is crucial to understanding human episodic memory. Human lesion and neuroimaging data indicate that prefrontal regions are important for retrieving temporal context memory, although the exact nature of their involvement is still unclear. We employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to elucidate the neural basis of two kinds of temporal context memory: the temporal order of items between lists and within a list. On the day of the fMRI experiment, subjects memorized a list of 30 pictures in the morning and another list of 30 pictures in the afternoon. During the scanning session, the subjects performed three tasks. In a between-lists task, they were asked to judge the temporal order between two items that had been presented in different lists. In a within-list task, they were asked to judge the temporal order between two items that had been presented in a single list. We found bilateral prefrontal activities during these two temporal context memory tasks compared with a simple item-recognition task. Furthermore, in direct comparison between these two tasks, we found differential prefrontal activities. Thus, right prefrontal activity was associated with temporal order judgment of items between lists, whereas left prefrontal activity was related to temporal order judgment of items within a list. These results indicate that retrieval processes of two kinds of temporal context memory are supported by different, but overlapping, sets of cerebral regions. We speculate that this reflects different cognitive processes for retrieving temporal context memory between separate episodes and within a single episode.
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