Brain oscillatory substrates of visual short-term memory capacity

Curr Biol. 2009 Nov 17;19(21):1846-52. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.08.062.


The amount of information that can be stored in visual short-term memory is strictly limited to about four items. Therefore, memory capacity relies not only on the successful retention of relevant information but also on efficient suppression of distracting information, visual attention, and executive functions. However, completely separable neural signatures for these memory capacity-limiting factors remain to be identified. Because of its functional diversity, oscillatory brain activity may offer a utile solution. In the present study, we show that capacity-determining mechanisms, namely retention of relevant information and suppression of distracting information, are based on neural substrates independent of each other: the successful maintenance of relevant material in short-term memory is associated with cross-frequency phase synchronization between theta (rhythmical neural activity around 5 Hz) and gamma (> 50 Hz) oscillations at posterior parietal recording sites. On the other hand, electroencephalographic alpha activity (around 10 Hz) predicts memory capacity based on efficient suppression of irrelevant information in short-term memory. Moreover, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation at alpha frequency can modulate short-term memory capacity by influencing the ability to suppress distracting information. Taken together, the current study provides evidence for a double dissociation of brain oscillatory correlates of visual short-term memory capacity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation