Dissociable neural mechanisms supporting visual short-term memory for objects

Nature. 2006 Mar 2;440(7080):91-5. doi: 10.1038/nature04262. Epub 2005 Dec 28.


Using visual information to guide behaviour requires storage in a temporary buffer, known as visual short-term memory (VSTM), that sustains attended information across saccades and other visual interruptions. There is growing debate on whether VSTM capacity is limited to a fixed number of objects or whether it is variable. Here we report four experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging that resolve this controversy by dissociating the representation capacities of the parietal and occipital cortices. Whereas representations in the inferior intra-parietal sulcus (IPS) are fixed to about four objects at different spatial locations regardless of object complexity, those in the superior IPS and the lateral occipital complex are variable, tracking the number of objects held in VSTM, and representing fewer than four objects as their complexity increases. These neural response patterns were observed during both VSTM encoding and maintenance. Thus, multiple systems act together to support VSTM: whereas the inferior IPS maintains spatial attention over a fixed number of objects at different spatial locations, the superior IPS and the lateral occipital complex encode and maintain a variable subset of the attended objects, depending on their complexity. VSTM capacity is therefore determined both by a fixed number of objects and by object complexity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Occipital Lobe / physiology*
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*