The Role of Prefrontal Cortex in Working Memory: A Mini Review

Front Syst Neurosci. 2015 Dec 18;9:173. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2015.00173. eCollection 2015.


A prominent account of prefrontal cortex (PFC) function is that single neurons within the PFC maintain representations of task-relevant stimuli in working memory. Evidence for this view comes from studies in which subjects hold a stimulus across a delay lasting up to several seconds. Persistent elevated activity in the PFC has been observed in animal models as well as in humans performing these tasks. This persistent activity has been interpreted as evidence for the encoding of the stimulus itself in working memory. However, recent findings have posed a challenge to this notion. A number of recent studies have examined neural data from the PFC and posterior sensory areas, both at the single neuron level in primates, and at a larger scale in humans, and have failed to find encoding of stimulus information in the PFC during tasks with a substantial working memory component. Strong stimulus related information, however, was seen in posterior sensory areas. These results suggest that delay period activity in the PFC might be better understood not as a signature of memory storage per se, but as a top down signal that influences posterior sensory areas where the actual working memory representations are maintained.

Keywords: attention; executive function; frontoparietal network; prefrontal cortex; working memory.

Publication types

  • Review