Spatial working memory is a cognitive brain mechanism that enables the temporary maintenance and manipulation of spatial information. Recent neuroimaging and behavioral studies have led to the proposal that directed spatial attention is the mechanism by which location information is maintained in spatial working memory. Yet it is unclear whether attentional involvement is required throughout the period of active maintenance or is only invoked during discrete task-phases such as mnemonic encoding. In the current study, we aimed to track the time-course of attentional involvement during spatial working memory by recording event-related brain potentials (ERPs) from healthy volunteers. In Experiment 1, subjects performed a delayed-recognition task. Each trial began with the presentation of a brief stimulus (S1) that indicated the relevant location that subjects were to maintain in working memory. A 4.8-5.3 sec delay interval followed during which a single task-irrelevant probe was presented. The delay interval concluded with a test item (S2) to which subjects made a response indicating whether the S2-location was the same as the S1-memory location. To determine if attention was differentially engaged during discrete phases of the trial, task-irrelevant probes were presented early (400-800 msec following S1-offset) or late (2600-3000 msec following S1-offset) during the delay interval. Sensory-evoked ERPs (P1 and N1) elicited by these irrelevant probes showed attention-like modulations with greater amplitude responses for probes occurring at the S1-memory locations in comparison to probes presented at other locations. This pattern was obtained for both early- and late-delay probes. Probe-evoked activity during delayed-recognition trials was similar to activity observed when spatial attention was explicitly focused on a location in visual space (Experiment 2). These results are consistent with a model of spatial working memory in which perceptual level selective attention is utilized throughout the entire period of active maintenance to keep relevant spatial information in mind.
Four experiments testing right-handed adult males examined interhemispheric transfer time (IHTT) estimation with visual evoked potentials (EPs) elicited in response to hemiretinal presentations of checkerboard-flash stimuli. Experiment 1 was a study of the relation between reaction time (RT) and EP measures of IHTT. EP measures provided more valid estimates than RT measures because more subjects showed IHTT in the direction of anatomical prediction. Experiment 2 showed that EPs derived from lateral occipital sites provided more valid and longer estimates of IHTT compared with EPs from medial occipital sites. Experiment 3 showed no difference between random versus blocked hemiretinal stimuli. Experiment 4 showed that IHTT derived with a linked-ears reference provided more valid estimates than IHTT derived with a mid-frontal reference and that small changes in stimulus eccentricity did not influence IHTT. The findings of these experiments indicate that noninvasive estimates of visual IHTT can be obtained in humans.
Working memory (WM) representations serve as templates that guide behavior, but the neural basis of these templates remains elusive. We tested the hypothesis that WM templates are maintained by biasing activity in sensoriperceptual neurons that code for features of items being held in memory. Neural activity was recorded using event-related potentials (ERPs) as participants viewed a series of faces and responded when a face matched a target face held in WM. Our prediction was that if activity in neurons coding for the features of the target is preferentially weighted during maintenance of the target, then ERP activity evoked by a nontarget probe face should be commensurate with the visual similarity between target and probe. Visual similarity was operationalized as the degree of overlap in visual features between target and probe. A face-sensitive ERP response was modulated by target-probe similarity. Amplitude was largest for probes that were similar to the target, and decreased monotonically as a function of decreasing target-probe similarity. These results indicate that neural activity is weighted in favor of visual features that comprise an actively held memory representation. As such, our findings support the notion that WM templates rely on neural populations involved in forming percepts of memory items.
Dynamic adjustments in cognitive control are well documented in conflict tasks, wherein competition from irrelevant stimulus attributes intensifies selection demands and leads to subsequent performance benefits. The current study investigated whether mnemonic demands, in a working memory (WM) task, can drive similar online control modifications. Demand levels (high vs. low) of WM maintenance (memory load of 2 items vs. 1 item) and delay-spanning distractor interference (confusable vs. not confusable with memoranda) were manipulated using a factorial design during a WM delayed-recognition task. Performance was best subsequent to trials in which both maintenance and distractor interference demands were high, followed by trials with high demand in either of these 2 control domains, and worst following trials with low demand in both domains. These results suggest that dynamic adjustments in cognitive control are not triggered exclusively by conflict-specific contexts but are also triggered by WM demands, revealing a putative mechanism by which this system configures itself for successful task performance.