Causal role of the prefrontal cortex in top-down modulation of visual processing and working memory

Nat Neurosci. 2011 May;14(5):656-61. doi: 10.1038/nn.2773. Epub 2011 Mar 27.


Selective attention filters information to limit what is encoded and maintained in working memory. Although the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is central to both selective attention and working memory, the underlying neural processes that link these cognitive abilities remain elusive. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to guide repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation with electroencephalographic recordings in humans, we perturbed PFC function at the inferior frontal junction in participants before they performed a selective-attention, delayed-recognition task. This resulted in diminished top-down modulation of activity in posterior cortex during early encoding stages, which predicted a subsequent decrement in working memory accuracy. Participants with stronger fronto-posterior functional connectivity displayed greater disruptive effects. Our data further suggests that broad alpha-band (7-14 Hz) phase coherence subserved this long-distance top-down modulation. These results suggest that top-down modulation mediated by the prefrontal cortex is a causal link between early attentional processes and subsequent memory performance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / blood supply
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Prefrontal Cortex / blood supply
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Time Factors
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation / methods
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen