The functional neuroanatomy of working memory: contributions of human brain lesion studies

Neuroscience. 2006 Apr 28;139(1):51-8. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.09.018. Epub 2005 Dec 15.


Studies of patients with focal brain lesions remain critical components of research programs attempting to understand human brain function. Whereas functional imaging typically reveals activity in distributed brain regions that are involved in a task, lesion studies can define which of these brain regions are necessary for a cognitive process. Further, lesion studies are less critical regarding the selection of baseline conditions needed in functional brain imaging research. Lesion studies suggest a functional subdivision of the visuospatial sketchpad of working memory with a ventral stream reaching from occipital to temporal cortex supporting object recognition and a dorsal stream connecting the occipital with parietal cortex enabling spatial operations. The phonological loop can be divided into a phonological short-term store in inferior parietal cortex and an articulatory subvocal rehearsal process relying on brain areas necessary for speech production, i.e. Broca's area, the supplementary motor association area and possibly the cerebellum. More uncertainty exists regarding the role of the prefrontal cortex in working memory. Whereas single cell studies in non-human primates and functional imaging studies in humans have suggested an extension of the ventral and dorsal path into different subregions of the prefrontal cortex, lesion studies together with recent single-cell and imaging studies point to a non-mnemonic role of the prefrontal cortex, including attentional control of sensory processing, integration of information from different domains, stimulus selection and monitoring of information held in memory. Our own data argue against a modulatory view of the prefrontal cortex and suggest that processes supporting working memory are distributed along ventral and dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Damage, Chronic / physiopathology*
  • Brain Damage, Chronic / psychology
  • Humans
  • Memory Disorders / diagnosis
  • Memory Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neural Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Speech / physiology
  • Verbal Behavior / physiology