Activation for newly learned words in left medial-temporal lobe during toddlers’ sleep is associated with memory for words

Elliott Gray Johnson, Lindsey Mooney, Katharine Graf Estes, Christine Wu Nordahl, Simona Ghetti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Little is known about the neural substrates underlying early memory functioning. To gain more insight, we examined how toddlers remember newly learned words. Hippocampal and anterior medial-temporal lobe (MTL) processes have been hypothesized to support forming and retaining the association between novel words and their referents, but direct evidence of this connection in early childhood is lacking. We assessed 2-year-olds (n = 38) for their memory of newly learned pseudowords associated with novel objects and puppets. We tested memory for these associations during the same session as learning and after a 1-week delay. We then played these pseudowords, previously known words, and completely novel pseudowords during natural nocturnal sleep, while collecting functional magnetic resonance imaging data. Activation in the left hippocampus and the left anterior MTL for newly learned compared to novel words was associated with same-session memory for these newly learned words only when they were learned as puppet names. Activation for known words was associated with memory for puppet names at the 1-week delay. Activation for newly learned words was also associated with overall productive vocabulary. These results underscore an early developing link between memory mechanisms and word learning in the medial temporal lobe.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5429-5438.e5
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number24
StatePublished - Dec 20 2021


  • anterior medial-temporal lobe
  • developmental cognitive neuroscience
  • early childhood
  • episodic memory
  • fMRI
  • hippocampus
  • memory
  • vocabulary
  • word learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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