Executive control processes underlying multi-item working memory

Nat Neurosci. 2014 Jun;17(6):876-83. doi: 10.1038/nn.3702. Epub 2014 Apr 20.


A dominant view of prefrontal cortex (PFC) function is that it stores task-relevant information in working memory. To examine this and determine how it applies when multiple pieces of information must be stored, we trained two subjects to perform a multi-item color change detection task and recorded activity of neurons in PFC. Few neurons encoded the color of the items. Instead, the predominant encoding was spatial: a static signal reflecting the item's position and a dynamic signal reflecting the subject's covert attention. These findings challenge the notion that PFC stores task-relevant information. Instead, we suggest that the contribution of PFC is in controlling the allocation of resources to support working memory. In support of this, we found that increased power in the alpha and theta bands of PFC local field potentials, which are thought to reflect long-range communication with other brain areas, was correlated with more precise color representations.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Color Perception / physiology*
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology*