The motivation to receive rewards enhances episodic memories, and the motivation is modulated by task difficulty. In episodic retrieval, however, functional neuroimaging evidence regarding the motivation that mediates interactions between reward and task difficulty is scarce. The present fMRI study investigated this issue. During encoding performed without fMRI, participants encoded Japanese words using either deep or shallow strategies, which led to variation in difficulty level during subsequent retrieval. During retrieval with fMRI, participants recognized the target words in either high or low monetary reward conditions. In the behavioral results, a reward-related enhancement of memory was found only when the memory retrieval was difficult, and the rewarding effect on subjective motivation was greater in the retrieval of memories with high difficulty than those with low difficulty. The fMRI data showed that reward-related increases in the activation of the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), medial temporal lobe (MTL), dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) were greater during the retrieval of memories with high difficulty than those with low difficulty. Furthermore, reward-related enhancement of functional connectivity between the SN/VTA and MTL and between the SN/VTA and dmPFC during the retrieval of memories with high difficulty was significantly correlated with reward-related increases of retrieval accuracy and subjective motivation. The reward-related enhancement of episodic retrieval and retrieval-related motivation could be most effective when the level of retrieval difficulty is optimized. Such reward-related enhancement of memory and motivation could be modulated by a network including the reward-related SN/VTA, motivation-related dmPFC, and memory-related MTL.
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