While experience unfolds continuously, memories are organized as a set of discrete events that bind together the "where", "when", and "what" of episodic memory. This segmentation of continuous experience is thought to be facilitated by the detection of salient environmental or cognitive events. However, the underlying neural mechanisms and how such segmentation shapes episodic memory representations remain unclear. We recorded from single neurons in the human medial temporal lobe while subjects watched videos with different types of embedded boundaries and were subsequently evaluated for memories of the video contents. Here we show neurons that signal the presence of cognitive boundaries between subevents from the same episode and neurons that detect the abstract separation between different episodes. The firing rate and spike timing of these boundary-responsive neurons were predictive of later memory retrieval accuracy. At the population level, abrupt neural state changes following boundaries predicted enhanced memory strength but impaired order memory, capturing the behavioral tradeoff subjects exhibited when recalling episodic content versus temporal order. Successful retrieval was associated with reinstatement of the neural state present following boundaries, indicating that boundaries structure memory search. These findings reveal a neuronal substrate for detecting cognitive boundaries and show that cognitive boundary signals facilitate the mnemonic organization of continuous experience as a set of discrete episodic events.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience