The neural correlates of visual working memory encoding: a time-resolved fMRI study

J Jay Todd, Suk Won Han, Stephenie Harrison, René Marois
Neuropsychologia 2011, 49 (6): 1527-36
The encoding of information into visual working memory (VWM) is not only a prerequisite step for efficient working memory, it is also considered to limit our ability to attend to, and be consciously aware of, task-relevant events. Despite its important role in visual cognition, the neural mechanisms underlying visual working memory encoding have not yet been specifically dissociated from those involved in perception and/or VWM maintenance. To isolate the brain substrates supporting VWM encoding, here we sought to identify, with time-resolved fMRI, brain regions whose temporal profile of activation tracked the time course of VWM encoding. We applied this approach to two different stimulus categories - colors and faces - that dramatically differ in their encoding time. While several cortical and subcortical regions were activated during the VWM encoding period, one of these regions in the lateral prefrontal cortex - the inferior frontal junction - showed a temporal activation profile associated with the duration of encoding and that could not be accounted for by either perceptual or general attentional effects. Moreover, this region corresponds to the prefrontal area previously implicated in 'attentional blink' paradigms demonstrating attentional limits to conscious perception. These results not only suggest that the inferior frontal junction is involved in VWM encoding, they also provide neural support for theories positing that VWM encoding is a rate-limiting process underlying our attentional limits to visual awareness.

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