Neuroimaging studies of working memory: a meta-analysis

Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2003 Dec;3(4):255-74. doi: 10.3758/cabn.3.4.255.


We performed meta-analyses on 60 neuroimaging (PET and fMRI) studies of working memory (WM), considering three types of storage material (spatial, verbal, and object), three types of executive function (continuous updating of WM, memory for temporal order, and manipulation of information in WM), and interactions between material and executive function. Analyses of material type showed the expected dorsal-ventral dissociation between spatial and nonspatial storage in the posterior cortex, but not in the frontal cortex. Some support was found for left frontal dominance in verbal WM, but only for tasks with low executive demand. Executive demand increased right lateralization in the frontal cortex for spatial WM. Tasks requiring executive processing generally produce more dorsal frontal activations than do storage-only tasks, but not all executive processes show this pattern. Brodmann's areas (BAs) 6, 8, and 9, in the superior frontal cortex, respond most when WM must be continuously updated and when memory for temporal order must be maintained. Right BAs 10 and 47, in the ventral frontal cortex, respond more frequently with demand for manipulation (including dual-task requirements or mental operations). BA 7, in the posterior parietal cortex, is involved in all types of executive function. Finally, we consider a potential fourth executive function: selective attention to features of a stimulus to be stored in WM, which leads to increased probability of activating the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 32) in storage tasks.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Functional Laterality / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology
  • Space Perception / physiology
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed
  • Verbal Learning / physiology