Consciousness and cognition may be mediated by multiple independent coherent ensembles

E R John, P Easton, R Isenhart
Consciousness and Cognition 1997, 6 (1): 3-39; discussion 40-1, 50-5, 65-6
Short-term or working memory (WM) provides temporary storage of information in the brain after an experience and is associated with conscious awareness. Neurons sensitive to the multiple stimulus attributes comprising an experience are distributed within many brain regions. Such distributed cell assemblies, activated by an event, are the most plausible system to represent the WM of that event. Studies with a variety of imaging technologies have implicated widespread brain regions in the mediation of WM for different categories of information. Each kind of WM may thus be expected to involve many brain regions rather than a local, uniquely dedicated set of cells. Neurons in a distributed "cell assembly" may be self-selected by their temporally coherent activations. The process by which this fragmented representation of the recent past is reassembled to accomplish essentially automatic and reliable recognition of a recurrent event constitutes an important problem. One plausible mechanism to achieve the identification of past with previous events would require that the representational system mediating WM must coexist in spatial extent and somehow overlap in temporal activation with cell ensembles registering input from subsequent events. The detection of such a postulated mechanism required an experimental approach which would focus upon spatial patterns of coherent activation while information about different events was stored in WM and retrieved, rather than focusing upon the temporal sequences of activation in localized regions of interest. For this purpose, the familiar delayed matching from sample (DMS) task was modified. A series of information-free flashes, or "noncontingent probes," was presented before an initial series of visual information items, the Priming Sample, which were to be held in WM during a Delay Period. A second series of visual information items were then presented, the Matching Sample. The task required detection of any item in the second series which had been absent from the initial series. Thirty such trials with a particular category of visual information constituted a single task. Several DMS tasks with this standardized design, but with different categories of visual information, were presented within each test session. The information categories included letters of the alphabet, single digit numbers, or faces from a school yearbook. Event-related potentials (ERPs), were computed from 21 standardized electrode placements, separately for information-free probes and for information items in each interval of the trials within a task. Because each electrode is particularly sensitive to coherent activation of neurons in the immediately underlying brain regions, topographic maps were constructed and interpolated across the surface of the scalp. The momentary fluctuations of the resulting voltage "landscapes" throughout the task were then subjected to quantitative analysis. Distinctive landscapes sometimes persisted for prolonged periods, implying sustained engagement of very large populations of neurons. "Difference landscapes" were constructed by subtraction of topographic maps evoked by noncontingent probes during the Delay Period from maps of probe ERPs before the presentation of the initial information in the Priming Sample. Such probe difference landscapes displayed recurrent high similarity to momentary landscapes elicited during subsequent presentation of the information items in the Matching Sample. It seemed as if the distributed cell assembly continuously engaged by mediation of WM of the diverse attributes of the initial stimuli was being dynamically compared to the ensembles engaged by registration of the subsequent stimuli. Spatial Principal Component Analysis was applied to the sequences of momentary voltage landscapes observed throughout trials of each task. This method sought a small number of spatial patterns with which these large sets of inhomogeneous spatial distributions of voltage co

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