The hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped organ, is located on the undersides of each temporal lunge. It’s the brain area near our ears. The brain’s small, but vital hippocampus is responsible for learning and memory storage.

What is the role of the hippocampus?

Although the hippocampus has been a subject of intense research, scientists didn’t understand its role until the 1950s. Henry Molaison, an epileptic patient, consented in 1953 to undergo an experimental procedure that allowed doctors to remove his hippocampus as well as the surrounding regions.

Although his seizures stopped, the surgery caused Molaison to experience a form amnesia. According to Larry R. Squire, neuroscientist and author of the 2009 Neuron review, Molaison’s case was reviewed by Larry R. Squire.

Squire described Molaison’s state as “like waking up from a dream… each day is its own thing.” Molaison was unable to recall any events that took place years prior to his surgery. He did improve his ability to draw shapes reflected in mirrors, even though he didn’t remember ever doing it before.

Molaison’s case was the first to show that memory can be multi-faceted and that the hippocampus works in concert with other brain regions to store and encode memories. Molaison lived another 55 years after his operation.

Scientists have concluded that the hippocampus is crucial in memory. This was based on data on Molaison who became the most studied subject in neuroscience. Scientists are still not sure what that role is, however, according to Nature’s 2009 review.

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The hippocampus may store spatial information and function as an internal GPS. This is key to remembering where you’ve been and how you got there. Research on rats has shown that a healthy hippocampus is necessary for spatial awareness and long-term memory of some spatial memory tasks, especially those that require finding a way to elusive goals.

Studies on humans have shown that the hippocampus is involved in finding shortcuts and new routes to familiar locations. University College London researchers compared MRI scans from famous black cab drivers in London to those of control subjects, who were not taxi drivers. In 2000, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the study. It found that taxi drivers had a larger portion of the hippocampus than the control group and that experienced drivers had larger hippocampus organs.