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Episodic-like memory in animals: psychological criteria, neural mechanisms and the value of episodic-like tasks to investigate animal models of neurodegenerative disease.

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The question of whether any non-human species displays episodic memory is controversial. Associative accounts of animal learning recognize that behaviour can change in response to single events but this does not imply that animals need or are later able to recall representations of unique events at a different time and place. The lack of language is also relevant, being the usual medium for communicating about the world, but whether it is critical for the capacity to represent and recall events is a separate matter. One reason for suspecting that certain animals possess an episodic-like memory system is that a variety of learning and memory tasks have been developed that, even though they do not meet the strict criteria required for episodic memory, have an 'episodic-like' character. These include certain one-trial learning tasks, scene-specific discrimination learning, multiple reversal learning, delayed matching and non-matching tasks and, most recently, tasks demanding recollection of 'what, where and when' an event happened. Another reason is that the neuronal architecture of brain areas thought to be involved in episodic memory (including the hippocampal formation) are substantially similar in mammals and, arguably, all vertebrates. Third, our developing understanding of activity-dependent synaptic plasticity (which is a candidate neuronal mechanism for encoding memory traces) suggests that its expression reflects certain physiological characteristics that are ideal components of a neuronal episodic memory system. These include the apparently digital character of synaptic change at individual terminals and the variable persistence of potentiation accounted for by the synaptic tag hypothesis. A further value of studying episodic-like memory in animals is the opportunity it affords to model certain kinds of neurodegenerative disease that, in humans, affect episodic memory. An example is recent work on a transgenic mouse that over-expresses a mutation of human amyloid precursor protein (APP) that occurs in familial Alzheimer's disease, under the control of platelet derived (PD) growth factor promoter (the PDAPP mouse). A striking age- and amyloid plaque-related deficit is seen using a task in which the mice have to keep changing their memory representation of the world rather than learn a single fact.

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