Contralateral Delay Activity Tracks Fluctuations in Working Memory Performance

J Cogn Neurosci. 2018 Sep;30(9):1229-1240. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01233. Epub 2018 Jan 8.


Neural measures of working memory storage, such as the contralateral delay activity (CDA), are powerful tools in working memory research. CDA amplitude is sensitive to working memory load, reaches an asymptote at known behavioral limits, and predicts individual differences in capacity. An open question, however, is whether neural measures of load also track trial-by-trial fluctuations in performance. Here, we used a whole-report working memory task to test the relationship between CDA amplitude and working memory performance. If working memory failures are due to decision-based errors and retrieval failures, CDA amplitude would not differentiate good and poor performance trials when load is held constant. If failures arise during storage, then CDA amplitude should track both working memory load and trial-by-trial performance. As expected, CDA amplitude tracked load (Experiment 1), reaching an asymptote at three items. In Experiment 2, we tracked fluctuations in trial-by-trial performance. CDA amplitude was larger (more negative) for high-performance trials compared with low-performance trials, suggesting that fluctuations in performance were related to the successful storage of items. During working memory failures, participants oriented their attention to the correct side of the screen (lateralized P1) and maintained covert attention to the correct side during the delay period (lateralized alpha power suppression). Despite the preservation of attentional orienting, we found impairments consistent with an executive attention theory of individual differences in working memory capacity; fluctuations in executive control (indexed by pretrial frontal theta power) may be to blame for storage failures.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Spatial Behavior / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult