Banishing the homunculus: making working memory work

Neuroscience. 2006 Apr 28;139(1):105-18. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.04.067. Epub 2005 Dec 15.


The prefrontal cortex has long been thought to subserve both working memory and "executive" function, but the mechanistic basis of their integrated function has remained poorly understood, often amounting to a homunculus. This paper reviews the progress in our laboratory and others pursuing a long-term research agenda to deconstruct this homunculus by elucidating the precise computational and neural mechanisms underlying these phenomena. We outline six key functional demands underlying working memory, and then describe the current state of our computational model of the prefrontal cortex and associated systems in the basal ganglia (BG). The model, called PBWM (prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia working memory model), relies on actively maintained representations in the prefrontal cortex, which are dynamically updated/gated by the basal ganglia. It is capable of developing human-like performance largely on its own by taking advantage of powerful reinforcement learning mechanisms, based on the midbrain dopaminergic system and its activation via the basal ganglia and amygdala. These learning mechanisms enable the model to learn to control both itself and other brain areas in a strategic, task-appropriate manner. The model can learn challenging working memory tasks, and has been corroborated by several important empirical studies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / physiology
  • Basal Ganglia / anatomy & histology
  • Basal Ganglia / physiology*
  • Dopamine / physiology
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neural Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology


  • Dopamine