A coordinate-based meta-analysis of the n-back working memory paradigm using activation likelihood estimation

Brain Cogn. 2019 Jun:132:1-12. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2019.01.002. Epub 2019 Jan 30.


The n-back task is a classical paradigm for functional neuroimaging studies of working memory (WM). The frontal and parietal cortical regions are known to be activated during the task. We used activation likelihood estimation (ALE) to conduct a quantitative meta-analysis of 96 primary studies of n-back task variants based on four conditions: memory loads (1-back, 2-back), object (identity, location), age (younger, older) and gender (male, female). Six cortical regions were consistently activated across all the studies: bilateral middle frontal gyrus (BA 10); bilateral inferior parietal lobule (BA 40); bilateral precuneus (BA 7); left superior frontal gyrus (BA 6); left anterior insula (aI) (BA 13); bilateral thalamus. Further meta-analyses revealed that different regions were sensitive to different conditions: compared with 1-back, 2-back increased activation in left middle frontal gyrus, left inferior frontal gyrus and left aI; compared with object location, object identity increased activation in right aI; young, compared with older subjects showed increased activation in frontal, parietal lobule, and right aI; the comparison between male and female showed no differences. Thus, our findings, showed consistent activation of frontal and parietal cortical regions, while other regions such as the aI, showed different activation patterns depending on varying experimental classification conditions.

Keywords: Anterior insula (aI); Frontal cortex; N-back task; Parietal cortex; Quantitative meta-analysis; Working memory.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Frontal Lobe / diagnostic imaging
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Parietal Lobe / diagnostic imaging
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Thalamus / diagnostic imaging
  • Thalamus / physiology