Working memory delay period activity marks a domain-unspecific attention mechanism

Tobias Katus, Matthias M Müller
NeuroImage 2016, 128: 149-157
Working memory (WM) recruits neural circuits that also perform perception- and action-related functions. Among the functions that are shared between the domains of WM and perception is selective attention, which supports the maintenance of task-relevant information during the retention delay of WM tasks. The tactile contralateral delay activity (tCDA) component of the event-related potential (ERP) marks the attention-based rehearsal of tactile information in somatosensory brain regions. We tested whether the tCDA reflects the competition for shared attention resources between a WM task and a perceptual task under dual-task conditions. The two tasks were always performed on opposite hands. In different blocks, the WM task had higher or lower priority than the perceptual task. The tCDA's polarity consistently reflected the hand where the currently prioritized task was performed. This suggests that the process indexed by the tCDA is not specific to the domain of WM, but mediated by a domain-unspecific attention mechanism. The analysis of transient ERP components evoked by stimuli in the two tasks further supports the interpretation that the tCDA marks a goal-directed bias in the allocation of selective attention. Larger spatially selective modulations were obtained for stimulus material related to the high-, as compared to low-priority, task. While our results generally indicate functional overlap between the domains of WM and perception, we also found evidence suggesting that selection in internal (mnemonic) and external (perceptual) stimulus representations involves processes that are not active during shifts of preparatory attention.

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