Functional MRI Reveals Memory in Sleeping Toddlers

Sleeping child
It is difficult to study brain activity in very young children. Researchers at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain have come up with a protocol to use functional MRI scanning with children under 2 years old while they are asleep. (Image credit: Quintanilla via Getty Images)

Our ability to remember past events develops rapidly in the first couple of years of life, but it’s not clear exactly how this happens. Researchers at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, have now been able to carry out functional MRI brain scans of sleeping toddlers and show for the first time how specific brain regions are activated during memory recall in 2-year-olds. 

The team is led by Professor Simona Ghetti, Department of Psychology and Center for Mind and Brain. Ghetti’s laboratory is interested in how memory and cognition develop in children. 

The hippocampus, a small structure deep in the middle of the brain, is important for forming and recalling memories and is thought to be involved in developing memory abilities in infants. 

Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is a powerful technique for measuring activity in the brain. But it’s difficult to conduct conventional fMRI studies with very young children, because it requires completing a task while lying still with your head inside a large, noisy scanning machine. 

Ghetti and postdoctoral researcher Janani Prabhakar worked out an alternative protocol that allows them to take measurements from a child during natural, nighttime sleep in the MRI scanner. 

Asleep inside a scanner

Children first listened to a song while playing with toys in the lab, so they formed memories of hearing the song while playing with a stuffed dog. 

At their usual bedtime, they went to sleep inside the MRI scanner. While the child slept, the researchers played recordings of songs that they had heard earlier or unfamiliar songs. 

MRI scan
FMRI brain scan shows activity in the hippocampus, part of the brain linked to memory formation and recall. 

The toddlers were also tested, while awake, on whether they could remember in which room they heard the song, or if they could associate the song with a toy they were playing with when they heard it for the first time. This ability to remember things in context – where it happened, what you were doing at the time – is called episodic memory. 

Prabhakar and Ghetti found a stronger signal from the hippocampus when a familiar song was played. Children who showed good episodic memory also showed stronger hippocampal activation in the fMRI test, they found. 

Additional authors on the study, published June 4 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are graduate student Elliott Johnson and Christine Nordahl, associate professor at the UC Davis MIND Institute, and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health. 

Media Resources

Simona Ghetti, Center for Mind and Brain, 530-752-3370,

Andy Fell, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530-752-4533,

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