Working memory load improves early stages of independent visual processing

Luca Cocchi, Ulrike Toepel, Marzia De Lucia, Roberto Martuzzi, Stephen J Wood, Olivia Carter, Micah M Murray
Neuropsychologia 2011, 49 (1): 92-102
Increasing evidence suggests that working memory and perceptual processes are dynamically interrelated due to modulating activity in overlapping brain networks. However, the direct influence of working memory on the spatio-temporal brain dynamics of behaviorally relevant intervening information remains unclear. To investigate this issue, subjects performed a visual proximity grid perception task under three different visual-spatial working memory (VSWM) load conditions. VSWM load was manipulated by asking subjects to memorize the spatial locations of 6 or 3 disks. The grid was always presented between the encoding and recognition of the disk pattern. As a baseline condition, grid stimuli were presented without a VSWM context. VSWM load altered both perceptual performance and neural networks active during intervening grid encoding. Participants performed faster and more accurately on a challenging perceptual task under high VSWM load as compared to the low load and the baseline condition. Visual evoked potential (VEP) analyses identified changes in the configuration of the underlying sources in one particular period occurring 160-190 ms post-stimulus onset. Source analyses further showed an occipito-parietal down-regulation concurrent to the increased involvement of temporal and frontal resources in the high VSWM context. Together, these data suggest that cognitive control mechanisms supporting working memory may selectively enhance concurrent visual processing related to an independent goal. More broadly, our findings are in line with theoretical models implicating the engagement of frontal regions in synchronizing and optimizing mnemonic and perceptual resources towards multiple goals.

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