Neural mechanisms of time-based prospective memory: evidence for transient monitoring

PLoS One. 2014 Mar 18;9(3):e92123. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0092123. eCollection 2014.


In daily life, we often need to remember to perform an action after, or at, a specific period of time (e.g., take pizza out of oven in 15 minutes). Surprisingly, little is known about the neural mechanisms that support this form of memory, termed time-based prospective memory (PM). Here we pioneer an fMRI paradigm that enables examination of both sustained and transient processes engaged during time-based PM. Participants were scanned while performing a demanding on-going task (n-back working memory), with and without an additional time-based PM demand. During the PM condition participants could access a hidden clock with a specific button-press response, while in the control condition, pseudo-clocks randomly appeared and were removed via the same response. Analyses tested for sustained activation associated with the PM condition, and also transient activation associated with clock-checks and the PM target response. Contrary to prior findings with event-based PM (i.e., remembering to perform a future action when a specific event occurs), no sustained PM-related activity was observed in anterior prefrontal cortex (aPFC) or elsewhere in the brain; instead, transient clock-related activity was observed in this region. Critically, the activation was anticipatory, increasing before clock-check responses. Anticipatory activity prior to the PM target response was weaker in aPFC, but strong in pre-Supplementary Motor Area (pre-SMA; relative to clock-check responses), suggesting a functional double dissociation related to volitional decision-making. Together, the results suggest that aPFC-activity dynamics during time-based PM reflect a distinct transient monitoring process, enabling integration of the PM intention with current temporal information to facilitate scheduling of upcoming PM-related actions.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Delay Discounting / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Reaction Time
  • Time Factors