Supramodal parametric working memory processing in humans

Bernhard Spitzer, Felix Blankenburg
Journal of Neuroscience 2012 March 7, 32 (10): 3287-95
Previous studies of delayed-match-to-sample (DMTS) frequency discrimination in animals and humans have succeeded in delineating the neural signature of frequency processing in somatosensory working memory (WM). During retention of vibrotactile frequencies, stimulus-dependent single-cell and population activity in prefrontal cortex was found to reflect the task-relevant memory content, whereas increases in occipital alpha activity signaled the disengagement of areas not relevant for the tactile task. Here, we recorded EEG from human participants to determine the extent to which these mechanisms can be generalized to frequency retention in the visual and auditory domains. Subjects performed analogous variants of a DMTS frequency discrimination task, with the frequency information presented either visually, auditorily, or by vibrotactile stimulation. Examining oscillatory EEG activity during frequency retention, we found characteristic topographical distributions of alpha power over visual, auditory, and somatosensory cortices, indicating systematic patterns of inhibition and engagement of early sensory areas, depending on stimulus modality. The task-relevant frequency information, in contrast, was found to be represented in right prefrontal cortex, independent of presentation mode. In each of the three modality conditions, parametric modulations of prefrontal upper beta activity (20-30 Hz) emerged, in a very similar manner as recently found in vibrotactile tasks. Together, the findings corroborate a view of parametric WM as supramodal internal scaling of abstract quantity information and suggest strong relevance of previous evidence from vibrotactile work for a more general framework of quantity processing in human working memory.

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