It has long been known that damage to the hippocampus, an area of the brain that's crucial to memory and learning, can cause amnesia. This kind of damage may also cause other problems.
In this study, patients who'd suffered damage to the hippocampus were asked to imagine and describe in detail situations in commonplace settings, such as a pub, as well as plausible future events such as a Christmas party or a meeting with a friend.
"We found that the role played by the hippocampus in processing memory was far broader than merely reliving past experiences," research leader Dr Eleanor Maguire, of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, said in a prepared statement.
"(The hippocampus) also seems to support the ability to imagine any kind of experience, including possible future events. In that sense, people with damage to the hippocampus are forced to live in the present," she said.
"Furthermore, the patients reported that they were unable to visualise the whole experience in their mind's eye, seeing instead just a collection of separate images," Maguire said. The findings suggest that a common mechanism in the brain may support both the recall of memories and the visualisation of imaginary and future experiences.
The study was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Clues to origin of dementia
Scientists probe the idle mind