Sustained maintenance of somatotopic information in brain regions recruited by tactile working memory

Tobias Katus, Matthias M Müller, Martin Eimer
Journal of Neuroscience 2015 January 28, 35 (4): 1390-5
To adaptively guide ongoing behavior, representations in working memory (WM) often have to be modified in line with changing task demands. We used event-related potentials (ERPs) to demonstrate that tactile WM representations are stored in modality-specific cortical regions, that the goal-directed modulation of these representations is mediated through hemispheric-specific activation of somatosensory areas, and that the rehearsal of somatotopic coordinates in memory is accomplished by modality-specific spatial attention mechanisms. Participants encoded two tactile sample stimuli presented simultaneously to the left and right hands, before visual retro-cues indicated which of these stimuli had to be retained to be matched with a subsequent test stimulus on the same hand. Retro-cues triggered a sustained tactile contralateral delay activity component with a scalp topography over somatosensory cortex contralateral to the cued hand. Early somatosensory ERP components to task-irrelevant probe stimuli (that were presented after the retro-cues) and to subsequent test stimuli were enhanced when these stimuli appeared at the currently memorized location relative to other locations on the cued hand, demonstrating that a precise focus of spatial attention was established during the selective maintenance of tactile events in WM. These effects were observed regardless of whether participants performed the matching task with uncrossed or crossed hands, indicating that WM representations in this task were based on somatotopic rather than allocentric spatial coordinates. In conclusion, spatial rehearsal in tactile WM operates within somatotopically organized sensory brain areas that have been recruited for information storage.

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